When Matisse said that the painter of the future would be a decorator such as the world has never known, he was not being a prophet of doom. According to Gloria Groom, in the catalogue of the National Gallery of Australia’s Bonnard exhibition, the French ideal of decoration “denoted noble, graceful, expansive treatment of mythological or historical subjects on a large scale, featuring pleasing colours, materials and compositions that would enhance rather than dominate a room”.
This is a far cry from our current understanding in which an artwork might be denounced for being “merely decorative”, as though it shunned all associations with mythology and history. By Bonnard’s standards, Cressida Campbell would be considered an intimist, rather than a decorator – an artist devoted to the data of everyday life, not the grand classical themes. But such a distinction no longer applies to contemporary art: an arena in which the grandest themes are often allied with the blandest execution.
Most artists see print-making as a means of making their work accessible to a wider audience by producing large editions. Not Cressida Campbell: her prints are made in editions of one. She begins with a sheet of plywood on which a design is carefully drawn. “If the drawing is wrong, then everything goes wrong”, she says; so this part of the process absorbs a great deal of time and concentration. Next, she carves out each line with a small engraving tool, and uses small brushes to apply watercolours to the separate segments. After several coats of paint, she freshens up the image with a spray of water and takes a single impression. The end result is one coloured block, and one print – its mirror image.
As a young artist with an old-fashioned dedication to solving problems of composition, Campbell argues that subject matter is secondary – what really matters are “the subtleties of design and pattern”. She admits this leads to a degree of stylisation and a preference for non-naturalistic colours. Shadows, for instance, are included or omitted at will, depending on whether they contribute to the dynamism of the composition. Her methods are surprisingly close to those of abstract artists, but the end result is always a harmonious, finely-crafted slice of life.
There is no deep space in Campbell’s prints, but she generates variations of tone and texture with that spray of water before the print is pulled. These faintly mottled surfaces provide the “subtleties” she prizes so highly. It may entail a lot of drudgery, but Campbell knows that the finished work should look “easy, effortless, not laboured-over”. She knows that when something doesn’t work – perhaps for ineffable, indefinable reasons – “you have to murder your darlings”, and start all over again.
Campbell presents us with a recognisable world: orderly landscapes and street scenes, domestic interiors and still life. What lifts her work beyond the plane of everyday observation are the transformations she enacts with colour, texture and composition.
Although her pictures look naturalistic, they are expertly crafted decorations that have more in common with Japanese Ukiyo-e prints than with Western forms of realism. It is no insult to use the word “decoration”, which often assumes a pejorative connotation in the language of contemporary art, because she is a decorator in the same manner as Matisse or Bonnard.
In bringing us back to simple things, Campbell is exploring a decorative art for our times – an art that avoids the overheated demand for meanings and messages as surely as the most austere piece of minimalist sculpture.
The vital difference is that her prints almost radiate with the pleasure of their own making. It is a quality that alerts the viewer to the complementary pleasures of looking – those necessary, timeless pleasures that our television sets have been helping us to forget.
© John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald