Rebecca Campbell’s is known as a figurative painter, which she says in today’s art world is not cool. The cool painters paint conceptual pieces. Or, more likely, they hang conceptual boards from conceptual ceilings and conceptuals walls to make you think about the reality of walls and ceilings or the lack thereof. Duchamp’s urinal entitled Fountain is conceptual. It’s all in the title. The riff between what the words say and what you’re looking at is so great a gap that you fall between the two and only the speedy workings of your neural net can save you. Sol LeWitt said of conceptual art that it was “made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or his emotions.” David Pagel, art critic for the Los Angeles Times denied him this definition, claiming that LeWitt’s own work engaged both the mind and the emotion. That’s the problem when you start trying to define terms. Whatever wall you erect, someone drills a peephole in to see you through.
If “conceptual” means thoughtful and “figurative” means emotional, then figurative painting is girl-painting which would make Rebecca both simultaneously gag and embrace her womanly breasts. It would also turn Rembrandt, Matisse, Degas, et al. into girls. But Rebecca’s paintings are only figurative from ten-feet distant. Step closer and you can’t tell cheek from red sky. Rebecca keeps a foot in both camps: thinky and emotional, conceptual and figurative, girly and boy-y. It’s why she’s famous. It’s also why she’s not-that-famous. If you can stick in your category, then, the Times can be the contrarians they want to be. They’ll defy your own categorization. They’ll say no, you silly girl, you’re not thinky or feely. You’re a little of both. But only if you have spent a lifetime claiming you are the woman with the big thoughts. Or the big feelings. You pick one, only then will The Times allow you a blur.
Rebecca is from Utah. She’s not Mormon anymore but she does have three kids, which in L.A., where she lives, puts her right in the church. She has a garage studio in her backyard. When a gallery director comes to visit, he parks in the driveway just as I do when I visit her and her bougainvillea.
When the visitor recognizes Madonna’s figure in the painting, he is happy. Figurative painting is immediately apparent. Wysiwyg. Rebecca doesn’t usually paint Madonna but when she does, she looks just like Madonna. When the visitor asks, what is this supposed to mean, this painting of Madonna wrapped in Christmas lights?The visitor takes a step closer. What is this all this on the canvas? Is this paint, he asks. Hey, I thought I was looking at a picture of Madonna.
In the book world, the more transparent the writing, the more The Times, either The LA Times or The New York Times, likes you. The bestseller list, anyway. Take JK Rowling. At no point in reading any of the Harry Potters do you think, hey, that’s a great sentence. While reading Harry Potter, you don’t think about sentences at all. That’s the point. Not to see the writing. Essays, which are rarely on the bestseller lists, call attention to their wordiness, their sentences. Their titles, suggest a transparency belied by their content. Montaigne’s “Of Constancy” describes men on the battlefield. Brian Oliu’s “Chris Jericho and How the World Ends” describes the sweet crush of a grape. Lia Purpura’s “On Praise” features shovels, ditches, porch-sitting. The sentences are in your face. The details imagistic. The words themselves reified and intractable. Between the title and the stuff of the essays falls the reader. Neural pathways: on belay. Sometimes I wonder if essays befit best this apocalypse obsessed age. We keep thinking we’ll save ourselves with our big primate brains. Essays keep us in practice.
If you look at Rebecca’s paintings closely, all you see is paint. I guess that’s true of all paintings, all art. If I look real close to the screen here, all I see is words. Stand a couple inches back. The paint is thick as grass. Each individual blade of grass a tube of paint. You could nestle a small worm in between the bristle imprints. Sometimes, Rebecca paints with a knife. She and I both like butter. Perhaps that’s the impulse. English muffins smothered in thick layers. The painting, so obviously painted is now conceptual. Not only why did you tie up Madonna with that string of Christmas lights but why did you paint her? She’s already well-represented, well-photographed, well-seen. What do you mean by thickening her smooth skin with earth-heavy globs of paint? The figurative painter is supposed to be transparent. Rebecca has made her opaque. Like narrative writing, you’re not supposed to pay attention to the individual words, the actual brushstrokes. For figurative painting to make an emotional impact, you’re not supposed to think how the painting got made. You’re supposed to recognize the painting immediately for what it is. Rebecca’s paintings make you walk toward the wall. Then step back. Then step further back. Then step closer again. The emotion is that Madonna is wound up in Christmas lights. The concept makes a title.
She’s working on a series called the potato eaters. She likes Van Gogh but loves her father. Her father grew up in Idaho, on a farm, in a place called Albion. He was a strict Mormon who has, even in her LA-living, non-Mormon-living lifestyle, has found ways to support her work. As she does everything with simultaneity, she does she both want and reject her father’s good opinion. Like many essayists, her apocalypse is also her utopia. From a distance, this man is sustenance, wholesome, fruitful multiplication.
He and the sky are the same color, blown apart into their atomic constituents, and then, stepping back a bit,
falling into ground as light falls on a potato leaf in big, fat, wordy drops.
NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloosmbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and associate professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona at 7,000 feet. Not as high as Pam Houston's ranch but up there.