Cressida Camp­bell

Cressida Camp­bell makes an art of ev­ery­day life, writes Su­san Chen­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

ATAN­GLE of white flow­ers float­ing against a sky that is the blue bright­ness of op­ti­mism. The in­no­cence of a child in a sum­mer gar­den. A per­spec­tive of reach­ing to­wards a fleet­ing per­fect mo­ment. Ethe­real and full of wild prom­ise.

Cressida Camp­bell was draw­ing the un­fet­tered del­i­cacy of the flan­nel flow­ers at one of the most som­bre times of her life. ‘‘ I was draw­ing them when [my hus­band] Peter was dy­ing and I wanted that feel­ing of when you lie down on grass and look up at the sky and just get that in­cred­i­ble sense of peace and freedom.’’

Peter Cray­ford died of can­cer in Novem­ber 2011 and left his wife in the for­eign coun­try of the be­reaved. The loss has been pro­found. In con­ver­sa­tion he is still with her and she with him. But af­ter 29 good years to­gether, ev­ery­thing is dif­fer­ent now. ‘‘ It is a bit like hav­ing one of your arms chopped off. And it is also get­ting used to liv­ing life on your own. Which luck­ily I don’t seem to mind that, liv­ing on your own. But I miss him enor­mously. He was a won­der­ful per­son. The main thing I miss is the con­ver­sa­tion. It is a huge shock.

‘‘ I think for the first three months I was just com­pletely manic, run­ning. Then I went through a re­ally low pe­riod, I thought it would never end. I don’t think you ever get over it. We had a won­der­ful time to­gether so you have just got to look at it like that.’’

Cray­ford had taken care of the prac­ti­cal things so that she could be free to cre­ate. ‘‘ He did so many things that I have to learn how to do . . . I never had to learn the com­puter. All sorts of small things that when you are run­ning your own life take time.’’

It was Cray­ford who edited and pub­lished her book The Wood­block Paint­ing of Cressida Camp­bell in 2010. Leo Schofield de­scribed it as ‘‘ Aus­tralia’s most beau­ti­ful art book’’. She says: ‘‘ For years and years he said I should do a book. Fi­nally, when I had a ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion, at [Syd­ney’s] SH Ervin Gallery, we did it.’’

A good deal of Camp­bell’s work is about see­ing the beauty in what is around her; what The Aus­tralian’s art critic Christopher Allen de­scribes as ‘‘ depth of feel­ing and res­o­nance’’ in the small things, the frag­ments, the an­gles, the cor­ners, a half-peeled or­ange on a plate, a sin­gle flower in a vase, en­larg­ing the still-life qual­i­ties of the quo­tid­ian, seen and dis­tilled in the lovely light-filled house in Syd­ney’s Bronte that she and Cray­ford cre­ated to­gether.

There have been land­scapes, panorama, the Aus­tralian bush and its fauna, but it is the sin­gle de­tail, go­ing in close to the do­mes­tic­ity they shared, that has in­formed so much of what Allen has de­scribed as ‘‘ an al­most per­fect har­mony be­tween her vi­sion and her craft’’.

Since Cray­ford was di­ag­nosed with can­cer at 21, his health had been per­ilous. There is a sense per­haps in Camp­bell’s work of know­ing to seize and mag­nify pre­cious mo­ments, to hold them and keep them still; an un­der­stand­ing of mor­tal­ity, that th­ese things might never come again. Now he is gone and so has the easy in­ti­macy. She wants to tell him things but his side of the bed is empty. ‘‘ I know I am a very sort of rou­tine per­son and I hate change. So it was a mas­sive change. Be­ing Peter, he did all sorts of things to set ev­ery­thing up to make it as easy as pos­si­ble. But the big­gest change is that the per­son is not there.’’

She of­ten puts tex­tiles hand­made by her sis­ter Sally in her work. One piece is par­tic­u­larly poignant, loaded with im­port. It is an an­tique Dan­ish chair she had bought that Cray­ford hadn’t liked: ‘‘ He said it was like hav­ing Dan­ish ghosts in the room.’’ Cast­ing shad­ows on a bare wall, the empty chair has been va­cated, only an open book left be­hind. ‘‘ When you do ev­ery­thing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cally, the things that you choose do have a sub­lim­i­nal el­e­ment to them,’’ she says. ‘‘ I didn’t con­sciously do a lonely chair, but it has got a mood with­out in­tend­ing it that some­one has left.’’

Last year in a kind of fog of grief that af­fected her con­cen­tra­tion — ‘‘ it is an aw­ful word grief, it sounds so Vic­to­rian’’ — she de­layed an ex­hi­bi­tion. But a now in­tractable dead­line that is only weeks away has jolted her into work­ing as fran­ti­cally as her painstak­ingly la­bo­ri­ous process al­lows.

‘‘ I have been do­ing an enor­mous amount of work in the last six months. At the mo­ment I am work­ing so hard I of­ten don’t see any­one, I can go for a week or more. I am pretty sort of reclu­sive re­ally. I love my friends and stuff but I am not the sort of per­son who loves go­ing to ev­ery­thing.’’

Re­call­ing her good friend, artist Mar­garet Olley, Camp­bell ob­serves that they shared the char­ac­ter­is­tic of not ‘‘ end­lessly talk­ing about our work’’. Our con­ver­sa­tion over lunch ranges in­stead across life and death, books, peo­ple, ideas. With the mod­esty that she says char­ac­terised her fa­ther Ross Camp­bell, the writer who found the ridicu­lous­ness in ob­serv­ing ev­ery­day life where she was Baby Pip in his col­umns, there is no hint that she is, in terms of works sold (usu­ally be­fore an ex­hi­bi­tion even opens), one of Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful artists. She is sen­si­tive and warm, and those who know her say this is re­flected in her work.

Of grow­ing up in a creative fam­ily — her sis­ter Nell was the toast of New York in the 1990s with her epony­mous night­club — Camp­bell says: ‘‘ There was never a busi­ness bone in any­one’s body, pretty much, and no one was ever en­cour­aged to do any­thing to make money.’’

Her art dealer Philip Ba­con, whose Bris­bane gallery will stage a new ex­hi­bi­tion of her work this month, de­scribes her as ‘‘ de­ter­mined in a quiet, fey sort of way. She wants to achieve the most im­mac­u­late work and analy­ses a lot of what she has to say.’’ Af­ter Peter’s death, Ba­con had ex­pected the works for the new show ‘‘ to be a lot darker and more in­tro­spec­tive . . . but th­ese are cel­e­bra­tory things. She has re­ally thrown her­self into th­ese works.’’

Camp­bell found her way for­ward and the tex­ture that en­riches her work early, at East Syd­ney Tech, when she was just 17. Since a child she had felt the need to draw as a way of re­spond­ing to and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life. In her sec­ond year at art school, she chose to do print­mak­ing, ‘‘ be­cause they didn’t tell you how to paint. A teacher just said: ‘ Why don’t you try and do wood­blocks?’

‘‘ The rea­son I like my par­tic­u­lar method is that I like the com­bi­na­tion of paint­ing and print­ing. I kind of fell into it and it suited me. It was like find­ing your mu­si­cal in­stru­ment. I have al­ways just worked in an iso­lated way.’’ She would re­fine this unique process in Ja­pan learn­ing tra­di­tional print­mak­ing.

Each piece can take months. ‘‘ You think about what you want to paint, then draw it from life, then carve it. When you are carv­ing it, you think about the colour. And then you re­move your­self from the re­al­ity when you paint it. It is re­al­is­tic but stylised. And you have the freedom of mak­ing it look more in­ter­est­ing than a pho­to­graphic re­pro­duc­tion.’’

Allen says peo­ple re­spond to Camp­bell’s im­ages ‘‘ be­cause of the pa­tience and care that have gone into their mak­ing’’; the in­ten­sity of her en­gage­ment with her par­tic­u­lar process of print­mak­ing ‘‘ re­sults in im­ages full of a com­pelling sense of life and beauty’’.

Camp­bell is not sad, not re­ally. You sense she would be hor­ri­fied by self-pity. She has her in­te­rior life, her work, her imag­i­na­tion; the abil­ity to see the small mir­a­cles in the tiny for­got­ten frag­ments of life to lift her up. ‘‘ I re­gard my­self as in­cred­i­bly lucky.’’

Cressida Camp­bell, at Philip Ba­con Gal­leries, Bris­bane, July 9 to Au­gust 3.

Cressida Camp­bell; The Dan­ish Chair (2013), above right; Flan­nel Flow­ers (2013), left

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