Cressida Campbell: Who wants the world?

October 20, 2017
Cressida Campbell
Cressida Campbell

Berlin in January was cold, with snow falling in light drifts. Inside the CFA Gallery on Am Kupfergraben, just across the River Spree from the Museum Island, everything was bright, white and climate-controlled. In a large central gallery on the first floor were massive oil paintings by Australia’s most commercially successful painter, Tim Storrier – giant-sized paper planes and dramatic views of the ocean. In rooms on either side one found smaller pictures by Cressida Campbell, mostly her trademark still lifes and interiors.

Mingling with the German crowd, which included wellknown actors Christian Berkel and Andrea Sawatzki, and local collectors, there was a host of Australian friends and supporters. Most prominent were political commentator, Andrew Bolt; barrister, Braddon Hughes; and architect, Espie Dods. Brisbane art dealer, Philip Bacon, who shows both Campbell and Storrier was there to keep an eye on his artists.

The show, called Difficult Pleasures, was the brainchild of Sydney entrepreneur, Steven Nasteski, who made his reputation selling luxury cars, but also deals in high-priced, international contemporary art. Believing that Australian artists were as good as their international counterparts, but with no presence in the marketplace, Nasteski cajoled CFA directors, Bruno Brunet and Nicole Hackert, into holding an Australian exhibition.

On a visit to Sydney in January 2016, the dealers saw Campbell’s work in Destination Sydney at the S.H. Ervin Gallery and were immediately hooked. It was a vote of confidence such as the artist has rarely received from local curators, who tend to view her as a ‘decorative’ artist. Brunet and Hackert, who show stars such as Georg Baselitz, Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Chris Ofili, Dana Schutz, Sarah Lucas and Daniel Richter, made no such distinction.

Cressida Campbell, Night Interior (2017)

Cressida Campbell, Night Interior (2017)

While Storrier had the lion’s share of the exhibition space, Campbell had all the sales. Ten out of thirteen of her works were sold to German and Australian clients, while her more illustrious co-exhibitor struggled to lure buyers.
It wasn’t simply that Campbell’s pictures were smaller or more attractively priced, at $14,500 to $95,000, they were transformed by their appearance in this museum-style gallery.

“Basically, the work had never looked better,” the artist admits, feeling a little surprised at the ease with which she had managed the transition from boutique-sized galleries such as Rex Irwin’s in Sydney, to the cavernous interiors of CFA. It was as if an entirely new world had opened up in front of her. From being an artist one often associates with domestic environments, she had shown herself to be right at home in the more rarefied world of international contemporary art.

CFA followed up by including one of her pictures in their booth at Art Basel Hong Kong, the leading art fair in Asia, in March. It sold for $125,000, which is a record for Campbell’s work – a record sure to be broken in her upcoming exhibition. Suddenly she had galleries in Europe and London offering her shows, and enjoyed positive feedback from one of the leading New York dealers.

“It made me realise it would be good to make larger works and place a couple of them every so often in an art fair,” she says. “At the fairs you get people from all round the world seeing your work. There’s no need to have a huge exhibition.”

Campbell’s success in Berlin and Hong Kong came as no surprise to Steven Nasteski who first saw the artist’s work at Rex Irwin’s in the 1990s, but currently doesn’t own anything. He sees Campbell as an artist of global importance. “In my view,” he says, “Cressida is without peer as the most talented female artist practising today. She’ll stand the test of time and end up in the art history books. When you consider how long it takes her to complete a picture you realise that her work is really sophisticated and completely undervalued.”

It’s the time it takes to complete a picture that is the single greatest impediment to Campbell pursuing an international career. Many of today’s leading artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei employ teams of assistants to help produce work. They are more like factory managers than anything we romantically associate with the term “artist”.

Very few Australian artists have managed to sustain an international career. Tracey Moffatt had a moment of glory which she is now trying to recapture. Bill Henson and Fiona Hall have many overseas admirers but rarely exhibit outside of Australia. Patricia Piccinini – another artist who has her work made in a factory – recently had two well-attended museum exhibitions in Brazil.

In a globalised art world it may not be necessary for an Australian artist to live overseas in order to reach an international audience. It may not even be necessary to be wildly productive. Nevertheless, it’s much harder to make it if you’re living in Sydney, producing pictures at a snail’s pace.

Campbell knows her slowness is a problem. She claims not to suffer from a lack of ambition but can’t imagine compromising on her tried-and-true studio methods. “I’ve always been ambitious for my work,” she says, “but the constant nature of that ambition is to make the best picture I can.”

Her first step is to draw a design on a sheet of plywood. Once she is happy with the composition she inscribes the outlines with an etching tool and then paints the sheet with layer upon layer of watercolours. The final stage is to spray the picture with water and run it through a printing press, creating a single print and its mirror image, the painted block.

It can take weeks to complete an image because of the amount of repetitive painting involved. It’s not as quick or efficient as working with a brush on canvas but Campbell is as comfortable with this method as a tortoise is comfortable in its shell. One attraction is that she never need leave the house. She has everything she requires, including a printing press, in her backyard studio. Even her subject matter never seems to stray far from home, with numerous pictures based on objects she has collected.

Campbell’s house is a kind of private museum. The walls are lined with small paintings and prints – from a Japanese woodblock to Rembrandt etching to a portrait Martin Sharp made as a schoolboy. There are ceramics, objects, textiles and furniture from many different places; rare pieces and mere curiosities, but everything has been chosen for pleasure, not monetary value. Loyal viewers have grown familiar with these bowls, chairs, plants and fragments of other people’s paintings that reappear in Campbell’s still lifes and interiors.

Cressida Campbell, Maidenhair and carafe (2016)

Cressida Campbell, Maidenhair and carafe (2016)

Now in her mid-fifties Campbell has become obsessive about her work, which can never be speeded up or fudged. Ask her to lunch and she’ll say she has to prepare for a show which may be 12 months away. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy has repeatedly invited her to visit one of their properties with a group of artists but she always declines. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy nature, it’s mainly that she dreads being away from the studio and dislikes the idea of travelling with strangers. “I’d love it for one dinner,” she says, “but that would use up all my nervous energy.”

“Besides,” she continues, “I used to paint landscapes but I’ve inched back more and more into interiors. I’m always going to be a studio painter, not a plein air painter. I’ll makes sketches, I’ll draw from life, but I don’t like sitting around painting out of doors. When I travel it’s usually to look at museums and exhibitions.”

Campbell may not be “a group person”, but she is a great talker who will spend hours on the phone chatting with confidantes, usually the same small group of friends and family she has known for decades. “There’s about six people,” she says. She can get through a day’s work while speaking through a headset because much of her art-making process is purely mechanical.

The amount of effort Campbell expends on a picture means she needs to put some sort of distance between herself and the finished work, and the printing press is the means to this end. She is both painter and printmaker, but completely unorthodox in both disciplines.

If Campbell were simply looking for a quiet life it would be easy enough for her to stick with the Australian market where she has a dedicated fan base. Ever since her early shows at Sydney’s Hogarth and Mori galleries in the 1980s, she has had collectors queuing up to buy her work. Nowadays it’s almost taken for granted that every exhibition will be a sell-out. Her resale market is equally healthy, with a modestly-sized piece selling at a Deutscher and Hackett auction in September for $97,600.

A turning point in her career came in 2009, with a mid-career survey at Sydney’s S.H.Ervin Gallery called Timeless: The Art of Cressida Campbell. The show shattered gallery attendance records, with the word-of-mouth factor drawing wave upon wave of viewers. Campbell proved she was no humble printmaker but an artist of exceptional discipline, skill and imagination.

In early 2016, when her work returned to the S.H.Ervin as part of Destination Sydney, her pictures were hung alongside those of Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, Australia’s two most celebrated female artists. It turned out to be an unequal contest because Campbell completely dominated the exhibition.

Peculiar as it may seem, in the contemporary art scene popularity can be a curse. For all her success and ability to pull a crowd, Campbell still struggles for institutional recognition. Many curators instinctively distrust work that finds favour with the general public. They see her pictures as too conspicuously skilful, too devoid of issues or spectacle. Instead of an artist who sets out to make a work of beauty they prefer one who spits in the face of the bourgeoisie.

One man who fully appreciates Campbell’s worth is her principal dealer, Philip Bacon, who is based in Brisbane, but is hiring the Moss Green gallery to hold an exhibition in Sydney this month. “Cressida is one of the most sought-after artists working in Australia today,” he enthuses. “People are intrigued by her painstaking technique, even if they’re not exactly sure how it’s done. They love the result and want to own it. Because her mode of working is so slow and intensive, there’s always a waiting list, always more potential buyers than works to satisfy the demand.”

Bacon emphasises that a Cressida Campbell show is “a rare event”. Her previous solo exhibition was with Bacon in 2013, the one before that was with Sophie Gannon in Melbourne in 2009. If that seems inordinately slow for such a popular artist it’s because over the past five years she has been through upheavals that had nothing to do with art.

In July 2011 Campbell was upset by the loss of her close friend, Margaret Olley. Indeed, at this stage of her career, Campbell is getting used to comparisons with her legendary mentor. “I’m honoured to be linked with Margaret,” she says. “She was an inspiring person who gave me many wise bits of advice. As artists we were drawn to the same things, but otherwise we’re totally different.”

Worse was to follow in November that year with the death of her husband, the film critic and polymath, Peter Crayford. The couple were complementary personalities who moved in together three months after their first meeting, and would be inseparable for the following 29 years. By any standards Peter was a special person: modest, charming, a great chef, a raconteur with an amazing fund of knowledge. His health, however, was always ruinous.

After fighting off two bouts of Hodgkin’s disease Peter’s body had been so saturated with radiation that every trip to the doctor seemed to herald a new crisis. During the final years of his life he struggled with breast cancer, chronic pain and fatigue. It wasn’t unusual for the couple to leave a dinner party at 8 pm because Peter couldn’t last any longer.

His parting gift to his wife was the most beautiful monograph ever published on an Australian artist. He planned and supervised every detail of this book, which has gone through three editions since 2008. The book uses non-laminated paper, making the reproductions seem uncannily close to the textural quality of the original woodblock prints. The couple travelled to Singapore when the pages were being printed, taking turns to watch them coming off the presses. “Peter had wanted to do a book for about ten years,” she remembers, “but I always thought it was too early. When we knew his time was running out we decided to act, and not hold back on quality. We never expected to break even but it sold more than 7,000 copies.”

During Peter’s final year or two he would rarely leave the house, and was eventually bed-ridden. Campbell recalls their routine: “He’d read or listen to the radio. He was never bored for a minute. I’d work all day in the studio in the backyard, and would then get dinner. He’d often get up for meals, so our life didn’t change too much. Peter had never been the mad out-doorsy type.”

“In the final ten years he had quite a few major operations, and that was awful and exhausting for both of us. At the same time he was so courageous, managing to keep his dignity throughout the most hideous experiences. We just tried to live as normally as possible while he was dying. He only went to the hospital in the last five days and that was because my back suddenly went, which was a nightmare. It was tragic because he had such a great mind and he loved life so much.”

In the period immediately following her husband’s death, Campbell felt she was working hard but not achieving much. “Looking back, I think I went completely mad for a few years,” she says, “but was incredibly grateful to have my work. Apart from a few good friends and family, it’s important to have something that’s an anchor, something that’s part of you. Something stable.”

“At that time I realised the world is made for couples. When someone dies, you don’t want to be given a look of pity. You don’t want to be treated with kid gloves, but I suppose it’s inevitable in our society. We don’t really know how to deal with death.”

“If you know for a long time that someone is going to die you should be prepared for it, but when it happens it’s a whole other thing. It’s a shock. The eerie finality of it. I just kept thinking, ‘Peter won’t be coming home again’, although he eventually did. I buried his ashes under a Gordonia in the garden.”

“When you’re sad, people just want you to be happy. Your grief is a burden for them so they’ll try to cheer you up by saying a lot of tactless, well-meaning things. If anything remotely positive happened it would be: ‘Why that’s wonderful!’ If you went out with someone for dinner… ‘That’s fabulous! How do you feel? How was it?’ It’s over the top.”

“It’s an old cliché, but only time helps. You never really forget, but you gradually get through the worst of it.”

Cressida Campbell, Still life with dragonfly,(detail) 2016-17

Cressida Campbell, Still life with dragonfly, 2016-17

One of the reasons Campbell can talk more freely about her experiences over the past few years is that she has finally begun a new relationship, although she insists it’s too early to make any public announcements. All she wants to say about the new man in her life, who can only be known as “Mr X”, is that he’s very clever, and “good at getting on with all sorts of weird people.” As yet there’s no suggestion of co-habitation.

She’s glad to no longer be living like a complete hermit. “It’s strange to be suddenly alone in your 50s,” she says. “You’re no longer 25 and you’re a long way from 75. At that age everyone’s got baggage. They’ve got kids, mortgages, debts. Everybody’s got a history. They’ve got friends and enemies. But ultimately if you fall for someone and they fall for you it’s just as good as when you were younger. It’s not the same, but why would it be? You’re different at every period of your life. It’s an opportunity to add an interesting new chapter.”

She solemnly quotes Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music: “ When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”

For Campbell, art is the best way of restoring one’s spirits, and she is eager to show me the eagle she has just acquired. The noble bird stares down from its perch in the front room of her eastern suburbs bungalow – a fine example of Chinese scroll painting, acquired from the August auction of James Fairfax’s decorative arts collection. She noticed the piece when a friend drew her attention to a chair in the catalogue, but as soon as she saw the eagle – a 17th century copy of a work by the Northern Song master, Wen Tong (1019-79) – all thoughts of chairs flew away.

“It’s got such a wonderful expression,” Campbell points out. “It was a lot of money for me. but I love it! Even in a tiny photo I could tell what a great drawing it was.”

“When the eagle was delivered I had to move things around to fit it on this wall. Now the room is so cluttered someone said: ‘This is starting to look like Margaret Olley’s house.’ I was a bit taken aback, then I thought: ‘Well, that’s not such a bad thing.”

Campbell was delighted to learn that her Chinese eagle relates to a line from a Yuan dynasty poem: “a hero who stands alone is peerless”. For the past five years she has stood alone and peerless while her work has grown in stature. Today she stands on the precipice of a new relationship and a new, international audience. She has only to decide if that’s what she wants, and when to take the plunge.

Cressida Campbell, Philip Bacon Galleries at Mossgreen, 36 Queen St. Woollahra, Sydney, 12 Oct – 28 October, 2017

Published in The Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October, 2017