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Oona Campbell

Arndean Gallery
23 Cork Street
London W1

23rd-28th September, 2002
Illustrated catalogue available

Monday to Friday: 10am-6pm
Saturday: 10am-4pm

Encounter with Particular Places

Real excitement comes with a willingness to take risks. Over the past several years, Campbell has established a reputation as a painter of exhilarating, turbulent landscapes and seascapes. Her most recent work, however, is the most exciting yet. Inspired both by the everyday and the extraordinary - her daily views of the Thames, walks in Western England, visits to the Western Isles of Scotland and to Sicily - Campbell has pushed at the boundaries of her medium and at her ability to work within it. The result has been a more varied palette, a new fearlessness in mark-making and a body of powerful new work.

Consider, for example, the series of paintings (pp 18 & 19) inspired by a visit to the Isle of Bute in September 2001. Campbell's familiar jewel-like blues and greens have given way to warmer, sweeter shades of rose, ochre and lemon which evoke the play of the autumn light on the hills, the sudden changes in weather, the ominous darkening of the sky before an unexpected storm - indeed, it is a testament to Campbell's skill that in front of the stormier paintings, the temperature of the air seems almost to change as one watches. The smaller works convey a remarkable depth and authority, while the larger ones seem to open up a window into near-infinite space, radiating light rather than simply reflecting it.

Yet however forcefully and persuasively they recall the texture of the natural world, Campbell's work provides much more than a factual account of topography, weather and light. She is more interested in capturing a particular subjective state - recalling and preserving a particular fragment of memory. Hence her landscapes are expressive rather than literal. Encounters with particular places - whether brief or protracted - produce indelible impressions which are then distilled in her consciousness over weeks and months, until inessentials fall away and she is left with the clearest of visual images. And this is where the process of creating art really begins.

Small oil studies - sometimes as diminutive as a postcard - allow Campbell to experiment, to try out different points of view and to evolve ever more compelling compositions. Larger works often begin on the floor, with Campbell working around the canvas, adding one thin wash of colour after another. Paint is applied with brushes and sponges, rags and even fingertips. Gradually a complex surface texture is built up. Sometimes this process takes weeks, sometimes longer.

Campbell says that she always has a clear picture of the image she wants to capture, of the mood she wants to evoke. Looking at work in progress, however, it is difficult not to suspect that some of her most remarkable effects result from the act of struggling to achieve the image she wants - from the process of painting itself. Watching a thin strand of impasted white frothing across an azure wash, bringing the surface alive as it does so, one realises that Campbell is incapable of creating a dull brushstroke, and that these paintings will yield up new discoveries for as long as one is willing to look at them.

It says much for Campbell's range that she moves so easily from the high drama of the Western Isles to the low horizons and opalescent colours of the urban Thames. Her Thamescapes are at once emotive and unsentimental - recalling, with their restrained tonalities, James McNeill Whistler's paintings of the river, yet at the same time flawlessly true to the way London looks now. (J.M.W. Turner and Michael Andrews are two other painters who mean a lot to her.) No two of Campbell's riverside paintings are remotely the same, any more than any two London evenings feel the same. Some of the smaller ones (pp 10 & 17) have a brooding, sullen quality that perfectly captures a certain sort of winter dusk, while in others the pearl-coloured clouds swell upwards to reveal a tiny flash of pale blue with all the majesty and authority of a good baroque altarpiece. What no writing can capture about this series, though, is the subtlety of Campbell's colour and the sheer poetic rightness of her juxtapositions. Ingres is said once to have commented that the most beautiful thing in art is 'a colour adjacent to another which most closely resembles it'. Beauty, alas, is a word so overused to be of little value in critical writing, but it is difficult to forget Ingres' dictum when looking at the small variations in grey - used to such remarkable effect - in these London pictures.

Indeed, Campbell is increasingly engaging with a diverse range of landscapes - finding new challenges and emerging triumphant. She has, for instance, painted a thoroughly persuasive series of works inspired by Wiltshire on an early spring day (p 21) when, as she put it, 'the sky was trying to be blue but couldn't quite manage it'. The means are, as ever, closely adapted to Campbell's subject matter. These are earthy works (pp 22 & 23) - often painted wet-into-wet in tones of biscuit, bright green and umber - with the occasional calligraphic tree scratched onto the low, rolling horizon. It seems almost possible to smell the burnt stubble and the turned earth.

Nor is water ever very far away from Campbell1s consciousness. One work, loosely based on a ferry journey back from Mull (p 25), comes very close to abstraction in its engagement with pure colour. Campbell was, as she put it, 'enjoying blueness', in some cases so thoroughly saturated as the be almost black. Meanwhile a work inspired by Glencoe (p 20) is stained a haunting brilliant green shot through with passages of cream and orange, thick paint applied decisively over careful washes of colour.

It is this willingness to push landscape to its expressive, emotive extreme, coupled with an increasing level of technical ability, that makes Campbell's newest work so compelling. The compositions are often so dynamic they seem to push out from the surface of the picture plane, and although they are full of incident, the underlying formal rigour ensures that they never become muddy or incoherent. Campbell, though, is more than willing to take such risks. In conversation, she is clear about the importance of 'not being afraid to make a certain mark' - the importance of 'not becoming protective of the canvas and what's already there'. Some painters might, in Campbell's position, have slipped into a comfortable manner. These works suggest exactly how right she has been to do exactly the opposite.

Bunny Smedley
Arts Editor,
August 2002