Steven Campbell

Marlborough Fine Art, London, UK

In 1982, in his final year at Glasgow School of Art, Steven Campbell received the Bram Stoker Gold Medal, awarded annually for ‘best imaginative work […] in any branch of effort in the School of the year’. Nobody can quite remember why the Irish author of Dracula (1897) gifted the School the prize in 1903, but there have surely been few more fitting recipients than the po-mo gothic canvases of Campbell. His 20 paintings and collages at Marlborough – made between 1983 and 2007, the year of the artist’s untimely death – are dense with iconoclastic symbolism and delicious, noir-ish strangeness.

Campbell’s own tale is more picaresque than gothic horror. He entered Glasgow as a mature student, having been an engineer at the Clydebridge steelworks. On graduating, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute and set off for New York. He looked the part even then: flowing sandy hair, beard, a certain sartorial flair. Campbell arrived in a city still in thrall to ‘bad painting’ – a vernacular whose puckish jumble of references and registers echoes through his own; he was quickly championed by significant voices, had work in major exhibitions and was collected by important institutions. He surprised everyone by returning to Glasgow in 1987 but, in the decade that followed, his work fell out of fashion as painting ceded to the hyperbolic conceptualism of the yBas.


Steven Campbell, Alice in Ruins, 1992, 2.7 x 2.6 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Steven Campbell and Marlborough Fine Art, London, UK

Steven Campbell, Alice in Ruins, 1992, 2.7 x 2.6 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Steven Campbell and Marlborough Fine Art, London, UK

At the time of his death, Campbell was working on a series called ‘Fantômas’ (2006–07), after the gentleman arch-villain in Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s early-20th-century French crime fiction. Three of these canvases are included at Marlborough. They attest to the consistency of Campbell’s epic imagination: the vacant-eyed, elegantly attired young men of 1984’s Two Men Gesturing in the Landscape, Each with the Chin of Joan Sutherland – the oldest work here – could be a pair of Fantômas’s unwitting victims, wandering, moonstruck, to their doom across a misty moor. (I love the Kafka-esque matter-of-factness of Campbell’s titles – these gents do bear an uncanny resemblance to La Stupenda. There is horror in these works, but also humour.)

Campbell’s protagonists are nocturnal animals, for the most part. In His Insides Became his Outsides as the Caravan Game Became Erratic (2001) a menacing young man in a bright red jumper is poised to spring, trapeze artist-like, from a tree onto the roof of a blue caravan. Spidery, elongated fingers stretch out from a trapdoor in the roof and heavy, drugged eyes look up. Another acrobatic figure, bent backwards almost double, regards the scene. Which is the jailer here? Who is predator and who is prey? The field beneath is a patchwork of bodies: pink smudges of fleshy female form, less sharp and worked than the male figures, overpainted with the weeds and wildflowers of a pre-Raphaelite landscape or the millefleur background in a medieval tapestry. Above, the gloaming sky is murky with Campbell’s trademark Dickensian fug. Is this a crime scene or a bad dream?


Steven Campbell, His Insides became his Outsides as the Caravan game became erratic, 2001, 2.2 x 2.3 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Steven Campbell and Marlborough Fine Art, London, UK

Steven Campbell, His Insides became his Outsides as the Caravan game became erratic, 2001, 2.2 x 2.3 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Steven Campbell and Marlborough Fine Art, London, UK

There are rabbit holes into Wonderland everywhere in these paintings: the caravan roof, the painting-within-a-painting in Collagist in the Drama – Mort de Pierrot (1988), hands popping through the bookshelves (marked ‘Travel-logues’) in one of the ‘Fantômas’ works. In an untitled work from 2006, an elegantly besuited man with round spectacles and Hitler moustache pulls back a curtain to jump onto a flat plane, lurid with staring paisley prints. If there is a sense in which all of Campbell’s dapper protagonists are stand-ins for the artist himself, this figure resembles him most closely. (The allusion to Hitler is a riddle, like much in these Sphinx-y works, that perhaps doesn’t need solving.) Where he was so keen to get to – or to escape from – we can now only speculate, but this show is an exultant reminder of the pleasures of the road less travelled.

Main image: Steven Campbell, Two Men gesturing in the landscape each with the Chin of Joan Sutherland (detail), 1984, 2.9 x 2.9 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Steven Campbell and  Marlborough Fine Art, London, UK

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London.

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018