The Spaces Between the Letters: Jon Campbell

I’m willing to give the cab driver the benefit of the doubt because he looks a lot like the American comedian Hannibal Buress but by the time the cab is deep into the dark heart of Coburg I can’t not say something; from the back seat it feels as though we’re being buffeted by high winds, and as the cab lurches back and forth — accelerating, breaking, and accelerating — I feel nauseous.

Hey, what’s wrong with your cab?
“WHAT?”
I repeat the question…
“It needs a service. Why, are you an expert?”
No mate, it just feels like we’re going to fly off the road… This cab is fucked!

Offended by the profanity, the driver fixes me with a dirty look via the rear view mirror and then, as the cab veers off the main road into a nest of backstreets, we suddenly come up against a sign: ROAD CLOSED. Ignoring the warning the driver swerves around some orange witches hats and pulls up hard against the gutter. After an ugly dispute over the existence of Motorpass cards—“They had them a long time ago, but no more…”—I am deposited onto a freezing windswept street about a kilometre from Jon Campbell’s house.

When I eventually arrive on foot  it’s what real estate agents might describe as ‘neat as a pin’: a green and red Federation style bungalow with a blonde brick garden and potted succulents. Campbell opens the door, smiling. The inside of the house is as pristine as the outside: mid-century chairs and credenza, the walls dotted with examples of Campbell’s work and those of friends and others. It seems like the house has the same colour scheme as Campbell’s latest canvases, an impression made even more intense by the apple red splash back in the kitchen and walls painted in rectangles and squares of green, pink, grey and blue. On one wall is a painting of a green apple. Campbell tells me that it’s one of his own, painted for an “apple themed group show”. It sits on the wall, a perfectly balanced addition to the kitchen decor. After coffee and a blueberry muffin made by one of Campbell’s two daughters, we retire to the backyard studio.

The fifty four year old artist has been exhibiting since the mid-1980s; his first group show outing when he graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1986, followed by his
first solo show in 1989 at Powell Street Gallery in Melbourne. Campbell has become known as a text artist, working in drawing and painting but also in a variety of other media; from flags, banners and neon, to wall works and painted trams. His texts are derived from the idioms of Australian English: phrases like ‘shit yeah’, ‘up shit creek’ and ‘weak as piss’; or mangled pronunciations such as ‘bewdyful’ and ‘ger-die-mite’. Some lines are taken wholesale from suburban signage ‘Food pub grub’, ‘Kebabs’ or ‘Footscray Halal Meats 100%’.

Campbell is working on a show for his Sydney galleries and a group of paintings are set up in the studio. Works that combine sketchy figurative elements and collaged text appear to be a sudden departure from his recent work but in fact turn out to be from 1990, made when Campbell had a residency at the Australia Council’s Greene Street Studio in New York. By coincidence he has just spent another three month stint there—twenty five years later—and has decided to show these works alongside his recent paintings. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than three months without making work”, says Campbell, remembering his most recent visit. “It’s a great space. It’s hard to go there and not make work.”

I’m always curious about what artists do on their holidays. Do ‘text artists’ seek out shows of text work? What did he go and see in New York?

“I love going to the Met and looking at the Manet, or going to the Frick. I love all of that”, recalls Campbell enthusiastically. “It was great going to see the Matisse cut out show, which was unbelievable, or seeing the On Kawara show at the Guggenheim. Those big shows are really something. I always think, that’s the moment to see them because you’re not going to see them again. I love historical figurative painting.”

The works from 1990 look like transitionary pieces; when did he move out of this style and into text only? “This was the first use of text I made in these works,” he says. “From then
on through the 1990s I was thinking of the combination of text and image. But the figuration was becoming simplified. And then the text in the mid to late 1990s really started to take over. It allowed me to talk about a certain subject, and really allowed me to design things and make the paintings in a way that wasn’t quite getting there with figuration.” Were there artists he was looking at who pushed him to think about using text alone? “I was a big fan of Keith Haring. I was trying to follow him a bit, both in terms of
subject and also in the way he made it; in that use of an outline. I also liked the fact that he could work outside the gallery. He had the ‘Pop Shop’ and all that. The text: I started to look at Ed Ruscha. I have an interest in American twentieth century painting and so, you know,you work your way around to Ed Ruscha in terms of that history and the Los Angeles/West Coast vibe. His use of text was kind of a local response… it was very much about where he was from, and where he was located.”

Campbell’s exhibiting career in the late 1990s and into the 2000s was a consolidation of experiments with text only works—something of a rarity in Australian art at the time. Were there any Australian artists who inspired him? What about Robert Macpherson? “Yes, and you do find your way into these guys”, says Campbell. “He’s really fantastic. But I haven’t seen that much of his work in Melbourne. It hasn’t had a big presence here. But I have books on him, and he’s a key player. I’d put him with Ruscha and other artists where there’s a very strong sense of place in the work. Maybe there’s a conceptual framework about making things, and how they go out into the world.”

Campbell’s recent paintings, particularly those produced over the last five years, have emphasised his focus on the choice and combination of colours while he continues to use text, sometimes distilled down to single words or phrases, such as ‘piss farting around’. How does he see the balance between the declarative conceptual text and its formal treatment? “Both are equally important. I think the text comes first. I search around for words, sayings—text that carries a little something more for me. Then the making is still about what the medium is. Essentially painting is the thing my work comes out of. The nature of text pieces is that they can go into flags, neons, light boxes, wall paintings… I like that as an artist there are opportunities to do that.”

Leaning against the wall of Campbell’s studio are two enormous canvases that appear to be completely abstract, hard angles and bright colours. Is there a text in there? “Yeah!
It says ‘personality’.” I look closer and of course, there it is: PER. SON. ALITY. “I’m painting in the spaces between the letters, and that has developed over time. I didn’t set out to make work this way. I did some work in the late 1990s where I’ve painted between the letters, then I made one in 2008, so [that approach] has been floating ‘round. In that sense it has become more a formal, hard edge painting.” It looks almost like camouflage. “There’s a visual perceptive process going on with the way we see things, how colours come forward or go back. Or how you read the paintings in terms of colours. That’s interesting. I like the idea that you’ve got to find your way into the text. You have to look a bit more. I’ve never really made an abstract work. This is as close as I’ve got to it in some ways. Showing some of these over the last couple of years, like the one I showed with Darren Knight at the Melbourne Art Fair (2014), people came in and said ‘Geez, you’ve changed now! You’ve gone all abstract!’ People look and can’t really see it. Others see it straight away.”

Campbell says that his works aren’t planned out, but one gets the impression that it’s not an intuitive process either… “It’s not planned in the bigger picture [of the ongoing body of work] but it is planned within the work. There’s a certain kind of process. It’s simple in a way. It’s about drawing—drawing ideas out on grid paper, then using an overhead projector to put them up—working through the design, and getting some sense of the colour. The colour is pretty intuitive when it gets to that point.” What sort of words and phrases attract Campbell to use them in a painting? Looking back at his work many of them seem very positive. “Generally, that’s the kind of feel. In recent times I’ve had the ‘fuck’ paintings—fuck this or fuck that—and they can go either way. It depends on how you say it. I like words and phrases that can be either positive or negative.”

Fuck yeah seems pretty positive.

“Fuck yeah is up there! It’s got that. ‘Yeah’ has a declaration, but ‘fuck yeah has got an added extra kick…

‘Fuck that’ is more ambiguous.”

As figures of speech or phrases they are interesting because they are not so idiosyncratic as to be totally original, but they have a very specific identification for the viewer. “Some people are offended by the word ‘fuck’. But it’s a very expressive word, and I like that all kinds of people can say it. And it’s great when they say it! It has presence. I have enjoyed those works.”  What about context? “I’ve had work go out in different ways, say as public art, and depending on who you’re working with they’re not going to let me put ‘fuck that!’ on a light box at a train station… There’s a different conversation around that kind of context, but it’s fine in a gallery. It could find a home! I know someone who has a little ‘shit yeah’ neon that I made, and he has young kids. It sits at the end of their hallway, and when they race in at the end of the day they’re all going shit yeah!”

For Artbank’s thirty-fifth birthday, Campbell has been commissioned to make a text painting that will be reproduced in a variety of contexts. It reads ‘TIME & PLACE’. “I was commissioned to make a painting that could work on cards and tote bags, and in all sorts of contexts. I was thinking about what those words mean—time and place—and [those concepts] have always been important in my work. How things line up, being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the right time, all of that… Some idea of time and place has been important in all kinds of ways. Maybe that had a relationship to getting the commission! Things line up when someone wants to do it.”

Campbell’s studio is carefully ordered and arranged. At one end of the room there’s a collection of vinyl albums and CDs. When I ask what he listens to in the studio he gives me musicological explanation of various lineages, clusters of artists who influenced others: Dylan, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, The Saints and Radio Birdman. “I like guitar music!” he says. It’s no coincidence then that Campbell is also a musician and is working on an album that he’s going to release on vinyl, although he claims not to be a purist. Somehow those guitar bands seem to say something about the spirit of Campbell’s art, and maybe something about Campbell himself. When I listen to the albums of fellow Melbourne artist Darren Sylvester, I think, that’s him. Is there a link between Campbell’s music and who he is? “I think so, for sure. I feel that way about Darren as well. My songs are storytelling songs and sometimes they have a close relationship to the text that is in the paintings. I think it was when I was using the word ‘yeah’ in my work that I had a song called ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’.”

That’d be an awesome name for an album. “Yeah! But I don’t like to think of myself as mid-career… I feel like I’m at the top of my game now. I’ve been making work for more than twenty years, and then you work out what you want to do.”

Sturgeon, Issue 5, 2016.

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