Cressida Campbell exhibition at National Gallery of Australia cements Australian artist’s underrated place in canon

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A mural of an ornate kitchen shelf wraps around the entrance to the National Gallery of Australia’s new exhibition.

An array of household objects are celebrated here with exceptional precision: a leek leans against a blue and white ceramic vessel, black kitchen scissors protrude from a white milk jug, a sprig of lavender lies lazily.

The more you look, the more you see.

The mural is an enlarged version of Australian contemporary artist Cressida Campbell’s 2009 painting on wood The Kitchen Shelf – here lovingly recreated by her husband Warren Macris, who is a fine art and photography printer and has took over 100 photographs of the original to make the mural.

Opening Saturday, the exhibition is a major retrospective of Campbell’s work, featuring more than 140 of his wood paintings and woodcuts.

At 62, Campbell has been making art for over 40 years, and for sale alone she is one of Australia’s most successful and sought-after artists (her trade shows usually sell out, often before the opening) – but this is the first time that a retrospective of this scale has been mounted by a major Australian gallery.

In March and then August, one of Campbell’s woodblocks sold for $515,455 – the highest price for a work by a living Australian artist.(Supplied: NGA)

It’s also the first time the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has scheduled a living Australian artist for its “blockbuster” summer exhibition – a place usually reserved for widely recognizable international artists (think: Picasso).

“[Campbell] is a very well-established artist and we believe she has brought something very unique to the cultural tapestry of Australian art,” NGA director Nick Mitzevich told ABC Arts.

“She is at the peak of her powers and we want to celebrate that.”

Arranged thematically across six rooms, the exhibition is autobiographical, featuring intimate domestic scenes, towns and landscapes of the places Campbell lived, and even childhood drawings.

“It’s kind of like a documentary, but in paint,” the artist told ABC News.

Mitzevich says, “The exhibition slowly reveals itself to you and seduces you with the buildup of color, the nuance of how it models a shape, or a form, or a shadow, and how it captures beauty.

“For me, this exhibition is a journey of beauty.”

Working from his backyard studio in Sydney (Warrang), Campbell draws inspiration from his surroundings, including his garden and household objects.

There is an unexpected beauty in the banality of the scenes and objects she depicts: kitchen scraps in a plastic container of ice cream; nasturtium cuttings cascading from a wineglass; a shock of gray fur (Campbell’s former cat, Otto) tucked behind a stair railing.

The domesticity of his subjects is deeply intimate.

A painting of Japanese hydrangeas, a small white flower growing in clusters on a vine, in a pot of water
“Nature is the most exquisite thing. You can’t beat it, but you can show people another way to see it,” Campbell says.(Provided: Cressida Campbell)

“[They’re things] people wouldn’t normally relate to interesting topics, but they actually seem interesting to me,” Campbell says.

“So it’s a way of getting people to review things.”

Make the everyday extraordinary

Campbell’s creative process is highly unusual for a contemporary painter.

She first draws then engraves scenes on a block of plywood, before applying several coats of watercolor paint using fine sable brushes. She then sprays the block with water and lays paper on top, pressing and rolling the block by hand to create a mirror print.

There’s a reverence to this approach, which draws inspiration from Ukiyo-e – a style of Japanese woodblock printing that Campbell studied while living in Tokyo in the 80s.

She also cites Australian painter and printmaker Margaret Preston as a key stylistic influence. Campbell was particularly fascinated by Preston’s woodcuts after discovering them at an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) in the late 1970s while studying art at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School).

A painting of a woman in her twenties, with a stern expression.  She has bushy brown hair and bangs, and brown eyes.
A teacher at East Sydney Technical College first suggested Campbell try his technique in woodcarving and printmaking in the 1970s.(Provided: Cressida Campbell)

Campbell takes several months to complete each woodcut and single edition, producing approximately five to six works a year.

“I actually spend a lot of time retouching and hand painting the print because there’s often a lot that needs work,” she told her sister, actress Nell. Campbell earlier this year.

It’s a painstaking process to capture what are, for the most part, everyday objects and scenes. (Heaps of used paint tubes and brushes on display as part of the exhibit are testament to the work.)

But Campbell’s willfulness and astonishing attention to detail make the everyday extraordinary.

Dr Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, NGA’s Curator of Australian Prints and Drawings, says Campbell, who isn’t particularly comfortable in the spotlight, lets her work speak for itself.

“His work finds its way into the world without having to make a drumbeat about it.

“I think a lot of people will recognize his work, but not realize who did it. And I think that’s the beauty of doing a show like this: people will start to know the name Cressida Campbell. “

Noordhuis-Fairfax collaborated with Campbell on the retrospective, which includes many of the artist’s childhood artworks. (Campbell has been drawing since he was six.)

“She is an artist who has never stopped drawing,” says Noordhuis-Fairfax.

“These are pretty exceptional drawings, and you see this real interest in the natural world and that [her] attention to detail started at a very young age.”

Two elderly women in an artist's studio, one sitting and pointing to a painting on an easel, the other standing behind her
In 2009 Campbell received his first investigative exhibition, at the SH Ervin Gallery in Sydney – a turning point in his career. (Picture with Noordhuis-Fairfax)(Supplied: NGA)

course correction

While Campbell may not be a household name, Mitzevich says he hopes the exhibit helps change that.

“What really comforts me is that the work and its practice will certainly take a big step forward in recognition through this major exposure,” he says.

“We hope that hundreds of thousands of Australians will have the opportunity to see [Campbell’s] work and appreciate how unique his practice is.”

The NGA has acquired a new work, Bedroom Nocturne (2022), from the exhibition, bringing the total number of works by Campbell held by the gallery to five.

A circular painting of a bedroom, featuring a bed, a bedside table, a chair and a wall covered in art
Campbell’s process remains the same as when he started, although his new work is much larger and more complex.(Provided: Cressida Campbell)

Among Australia’s major galleries, the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) has collected nine of Campbell’s works (including four donated by Olley, one of the artist’s early champions), while the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) has one.

Major Australian galleries such as the National Gallery of Victoria, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the State Galleries of Western Australia and South Australia currently hold no work by Campbell in their permanent collections.

Meanwhile, says Mitzevich, she is one of Australia’s most privately collected artists.

The exhibition features the largest number of private loans that the NGA has included in a single exhibition – 111 in total, representing 80% of the works on display.

Having worked steadily over the past four decades, it’s only fitting that Campbell’s retrospective was scheduled in the NGA’s 40th year. (Coincidentally, she attended the NGA’s October 1982 opening as plus-one by artist Martin Sharp.)

A painting of a cluttered room.  In the room are a collection of vases, some with flowers, pears in a fruit bowl and a painting
Campbell stayed with fellow artist and friend Margaret Olley while she painted four wooden blocks from Olley’s house.(Provided: Cressida Campbell)

Her exhibit is one of 18 projects announced so far that have been commissioned as part of the NGA’s Know My Name gender equity initiative, which was created in response to findings that only a quarter from the gallery’s Australian collection and a third of its Aboriginal collection and the Torres Strait Islander collection is made by female artists.

Mitzevich says of Know My Name, “It’s not about being ‘woke’ or politically correct. It’s about acknowledging that in our culture the playing field for various things is uneven…and it’s important to elevate the parts that weren’t given a good start.

“And we make no apologies for that,” Mitzevich adds.

The exhibition is not only a professional milestone for Campbell, but also a personal one. In August 2020, she developed a life-threatening brain abscess that paralyzed one side of her body and required multiple operations.

She has previously spoken of the horrific moment, after the fact, when she realized she could never paint again.

These operations restored Campbell’s use of his right arm and leg, allowing him to complete the new work featured in the NGA exhibit.

Campbell told ABC News that the opportunity to have investigative exposure at the NGA was an “incredible compliment.”

“I couldn’t feel more honoured. It’s amazing.”

Cressida Campbell runs until February 19, 2023 at the National Gallery of Australia.

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