Iain Campbell: reflections on an artist’s life and times

Inside Looking Out: Inside Looking In, 1989. All works by Iain Campbell.

 

Few artists have turned their gaze fixedly on the modern town of Alice Springs and how its settler population lives within it. This is the fine contribution of Scottish artist Iain Campbell who arrived here in 1975. An exhibition at Araluen, Reflections, brings together work from across the decades around this theme, which the artist pursues to this day. The show also takes in enough of the other strands of Campbell’s oeuvre to give some sense of the breadth of his achievement, evoked so well in the opening speech by Mike Gillam, artist photographer and long time friend. My essay , “What is this place I have come to? The art of Iain Campbell”, is printed in the generously illustrated room brochure and available free of charge at the gallery. We publish here, in extended version, MIKE GILLAM‘s speech, which reflects also on Alice Springs as a creative community without equal in regional Australia, questioning why this reality is not reflected in the public domain. – Kieran Finnane

 

 

My favourite Campbell paintings include people and places beyond my everyday experience of Central Australia, hence, many are not on show today. However some understanding of what’s missing might reveal a side of the artist, less well known, and that should help you access the coherent body of work assembled by Araluen curator Stephen Williamson and Kieran Finnane.

 

Above right: The artist with  I Certify, 1977. The self-portraits are of course based on his passport photographs from over the years.

 

I’ll quote firstly from a Scottish art critic who observed in 1963, “It seems the done thing … for artists to dash off to Spain, to seek subjects to put on canvas. But artist Iain A. Campbell, 24, took a job as a night-watch-man for his inspiration. Now the results of his work among the Clyde ship builders is on view …” 

 

A Campbell masterpiece, now 50 years old, is described by another critic: “Breaking away from the action painting school is young artist Iain Campbell, whose exhibition … showed considerable originality… In the painting reproduced here we have the interior world of the lodging house with the inmates reclining in attitudes only too well known to the psychiatrist. Lassitude. Despair. Society rejects.” Frankly, I wish everyone, Alice Springs residents and visitors alike, could see this painting.

 

Many of Campbell’s paintings, including some from this exhibition, would expand and contrast alongside the graphic hyper-realism of Jeffrey Smart’s well known urban and industrial landscapes. Certainly Campbell’s subject interests have oscillated more widely and include frequent homage to suburban life and notably the culture of backyards. Whether industrial scale or suburban streetscapes both artists exhibit a special mastery of spatial dynamics and perspective and are able to suffuse their work with a sense of isolation, abandonment, alienation… but Jeffrey Smart also had his finger on the commercial art pulse. Less fashionable, I think, Campbell’s great economy of touch with the brush better allows us to engage emotionally with his subjects, to fill in some of the texture from our own life experience.

Returning to my theme of Campbell’s missing paintings I’d like to mention Stations of a Cup Final, c. 1984 a series of five painted by Campbell during his early years in Alice Springs and drawing inspiration from a soccer match between Protestant and Catholic teams, Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic. The paintings provide a study of the camaraderie and underlying tensions within and between groups of fans at the game, at the pub and in the street.

 

One work (above left) shows two sides of humanity walking to the match down opposing footpaths. A heaving mass of bonhomie replete with soccer scarves and an edge of ritualistic antagonism, men with arms draped over one another and you can well imagine what was being shouted back and forth across the ‘neutral’ cobblestone road that separated the fans. These works were shown briefly at Araluen in the ’80s and then vanished from public view.

 

These are universal themes and there’s every reason to plan the return of these paintings for exhibition in Alice Springs. I think of the deserved and sustained success of John Brack and the popularity of his painting Collins Street, 5pm on display at the Art Gallery of Victoria. But how is anyone in Melbourne or Sydney ever going to see Campbell’s work spanning four decades in Central Australia, not to mention his earlier time in regional Gunnedah?

 

Hopefully the national arts establishment would have ‘discovered’ John Brack even if he’d been living and working in Alice Springs but I’m not confident the citizens of Melbourne or Sydney will ever know the brilliance of our many part-time painters including the non-self promoter Iain Campbell, the late and humble Halcyon Lucas (subject of Campbell’s fine portrait below left) or the unassuming Jenny Taylor. And that’s a shame because I think their work shown in the right company would cause a sensation amongst gallery crowds in the cities whereas ‘us locals’ probably view their reflections on our society and memories of place through a slightly jaded lens. Familiarity with the subject matter can breed contempt.

 

In fact many of Campbell’s paintings contrast the all-conquering ordinariness of our constructed lives with tantalizing glimpses of the natural setting of Alice Springs. And that natural beauty might seem a bit wasted on us, some of us fail to notice it after a while … and perhaps Iain Campbell is also wasted on us.

 

Left: Halcyon with Familiars, 2002. 

 

While many artists fall under the spell of the landscape and are driven to honour it, Campbell, for all the time I’ve known him, has been slightly disdainful of gum trees as a worthy subject for the self respecting artist. Despite his preoccupation with the human condition, portraying our rituals and probing our psychological depths or his own, and despite his ignorance of the splendor of eucalypts, Campbell and I do share some interests – a life long bird watcher he walks for an hour every morning with his binoculars and I’m a frequent photographer of birds. His studio reveals an increasing number of avian portraits and evidence of larger than life digressions involving papier mache, puppetry and sculpture. So there is much, much more to Iain Campbell than any single exhibition could hope to disclose.

 

I’d like to mention several paintings in the show today. For Campbell every brush stroke counts and he shows similar genius and intuition in his use of colour, often restrained and squeezing the life from a limited palette. In his great painting Looking Forward in Retrospect, 1988, he exposes us to the austerity of a working class Protestant neighbourhood and on the far horizon, the desert landscape of his future. Now contrast this with the bleached and receding colours of life chosen for his Funeral, 1990, painting located at the heritage cemetery in George Crescent. Here too, you will notice Campbell’s preoccupation with wrought iron, a memory transferred from Glasgow, when a small boy watched the fences torn down to feed the WWII foundries.

 

Looming large in this Campbell tour de force is Self Portrait No 2, painted in 1977 , not long after his arrival in Alice Springs (see below right). I must say, I’m both gutted and uplifted by this work – I feel strongly that it’s a triumph of paint and personal survival. Sustained by his miraculous proximity to the wilds of Greenock, a young boy, bird-watcher and future artist, finally escapes his suffocating and poisonous life and finds release. The three ornamental mallards symbolize his escape.

 

In recent years the vibrancy of Campbell’s palette has increased and the trees are alive more often than not; and I’m absolutely sure that much of this change of heart can be attributed to his life with Mandy Webb on the banks of the Todd.

 

Right: Self Portrait No 2, 1977. 

 

Stephen Williamson has done a great job curating this exhibition and with her usual diligence, insight and rigor, Kieran Finnane has greatly assisted our understanding of Campbell’s contribution and place in the story of visual arts in Alice Springs. Finnane quite rightly includes Rod Moss in her essay and I think it’s worth noting that a quirk of administrative history resulted in two accomplished European painters being simultaneously employed in the Art Department at Centralian College. While not a formal partnership, I think its fair to say these two colleagues avoided subjects close to the heart of the other and in so doing they’ve created a complementary and clearer vision of Alice Springs, its rituals and pathos, a reflection that exceeds the sum of its parts.

 

I feel I know some of Campbell’s paintings better than I know the artist and when I conjure up those unforgettable works in my mind’s eye I realize we’ve already lost a significant part of our town’s artistic heritage. When I interrogated him a couple of weeks ago, asking where’s this masterpiece or that one, stabbing my finger at the pages of his bulging folder, he would reply “I think that one was left behind in my parents’ cellar “or “I painted over it” or “Och, I’m not sure” … Looking through that folder, too many faded photographs of once fine paintings included the margin note: “destroyed”.

 

Campbell has painted in our midst for 39 years and Araluen had the foresight to acquire some significant works for the collection but equally some phenomenal paintings have slipped through our fingers.

 

We’re fortunate that some artists have their feet firmly planted in red dirt and choose relative obscurity living here, far, far beyond the myopic gaze of our nation’s city-bound curators. In terms of international exposure, the annual pilgrimage to Desert Mob is a very significant event for this town but its success has left little room for other lesser known but still highly accomplished artists. I think it’s fair to say that Alice Springs is a creative community without equal in regional Australia and this reality is not reflected in the public domain.

 

For a small town we know we’re lucky to be the commercial hub of an internationally revered indigenous art movement. But is our privileged star gradually fading? In fact, just as artists re-invent themselves constantly so too at an industry level this community must consider unfolding trends and proactively communicate the broader story of contemporary desert art. Perhaps sensing this, curator Stephen Williamson has produced some inspiring shows revealing some of the emerging conversation, collaboration and chemistry between black and white artists of Central Australia.

 

Above left: Yeperenye Rooftop #1, 2011 (one of a series of four).

 

If only we had the gallery space and the store-rooms to take the conversation further and even let an exhibition stand throughout an entire tourist season or long enough to adequately promote it. In a supporting role, the recent exhibition at the Central Australian Art Society shed curated by Dugald Beattie was quite wonderful but its audience reach, tragically limited. Speaking at the opening of the society celebration of its 50th year, former Araluen curator, Alison French observed that CAAS had begun collecting contemporary indigenous art through their awards program before its value was fully realized and acted upon by the great national art institutions. So taking risks is nothing new to the story of visual arts in Alice Springs.

 

Where are the longer term exhibitions of works by those great painters and observers of Central Australian environment and society, Campbell, Moss, Stuart, Smith, Julie Taylor and Jenny Taylor, Clarke, Kleinboonschate, Lofts, Mumford, Stockley, Wait and I could go on and on and on? Where are the print makers, sculptors, installation and new media artists, weavers and photographers? From visual arts to film making there’s a cultural common ground in Alice Springs and, perhaps it’s best reflected and promoted by our creative industries.

 

Above right: That’s not Dick Kimber!, 2012. 

 

Perhaps the next tourism budget should provide funding for a sensational group exhibition from Central Australia that could be toured nationally? Think of this as providing some depth, tone and balance to the recurring themes for which Alice Springs has become notorious, stereotypically brutal themes that demoralize our community, command the attention of media outlets and influence their readership, our potential future visitors, everywhere. And I don’t need to remind anyone about the reach of Facebook and other social media.

 

The Alice Prize, a highly regarded award that attracts submissions from leading artists nationwide, is only held every two years and the final selection of less than 50 works hangs in Araluen for just six weeks. In contrast Togart is an annual award that takes place in Darwin and while it also represents those of us south of the Berrimah line, the resulting exhibition has not travelled south of Katherine in a long time. If we are to attract greater attention and increase art and cultural tourism in Central Australia, we must have the courage to proclaim our unparalleled diversity and richness to the world of contemporary art. And for those who claim no understanding or interest in the arts, hopefully the term ‘economic multiplier’ resonates loudly all the same.

 

Tasmania and Hobart’s cultural and economic future was lifted dramatically when a successful gambler with very, very deep pockets created his maverick MONA and it’s unlikely we’ll ever have that kind of curatorial freedom, not to mention financial capital. Nevertheless there does need to be greater investment in Araluen as the arts hub if practicing local and regional artists, commercial galleries and others in the private sector are going to contribute effectively to cultural tourism.

 

Above left: Evening – Lot 8532, 1999.

 

Highlighting the broader diversity of this artistic community should offset and possibly reinvigorate the market’s appetite for indigenous art but perhaps more significantly it will strengthen and enrich communication across the arts community and across cultural boundaries. On a related and somber note – the construction industry in this town is on its knees. The foreseeable future is grim for building trades and we already have an oversupply of shops, offices and sheds. It’s critical and timely for government to invest in significant infrastructure spending and, along with a renewed focus on roads and housing subdivisions and bringing forward building maintenance programs, I’d like to think it’s also high time to invest in our arts infrastructure.

 

While we wait patiently for an enlightened government or a successful gambler with a passion for art, perhaps some of you might want to buy a Campbell painting and look after it. Ask Stephen and Kieran to help you choose a seminal work that should remain in Alice Springs for future exhibitions.

 

Below: Old Airport Bar, 1992. At the artist’s floor talk on Saturday, we learned that this work was one of two (The Other Place, 1984, being the other) which had been hanging at the CDU campus. They were both destined for the dump when the janitor alerted Campbell to their imminent fate. This story  underlines Mike Gillam’s musing that “perhaps Iain Campbell is … wasted on us”. Alice Springs owes that janitor a vote of thanks.  – K.F. 

 

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5 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Posted July 30, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    My thanks to Bob Taylor for reviving this story with his comment and providing us all the opportunity of some relief from the storm of controversy swirling around youth justice issues. Iain Campbell was an art teacher at the Alice Springs High School when I was a student there in the late 1970s – hmm, is that Colin Hodges and Helen Joraslafsky I recognise in the first painting at the top of this article?
    Mike Gillam’s list of names of influential local artists can be extended much further back in time, not to mention also numerous visiting landscape artists in the 1940s and 50s whose works did so much to popularise The Centre as a place people must come to see for themselves.
    It’s a potentially rich field of inquiry for discerning academics to highlight the significant role that the arts (painting, sketches, books, theatre, dance, documentaries and films) did so well for promoting the natural wonders of Central Australia.

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  2. Bob Taylor
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    And he’s still got it in 2016!

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  3. Geoff Aitken
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    I am unashamedly a huge fan of Iain Campbell, full stop and Mike Gilliam’s extraordinary opening address reflected supremely on the man of the hour … a wonderful opening night; the exhibition a “must see”. Get down there, Alice Springs.

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  4. Sia Cox
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    @ Frankie Lucas-Maclean: The exhibition is open until the 27th of April.

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  5. Frankie Lucas-Maclean
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Iain Campbell taught at ASHS when my husband and I were there in the 70s. I’m disappointed to have missed this exhibition but am delighted that his portrait of my mother, Halcyon Lucas, flew the flag for the family!

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