by Travis Jeppesen on March 25, 2008
Galerie Deschler, Berlin
Through March 29, 2008
At Galerie Deschler, hidden away down in the basement, a young American painter by the name of Jon Campbell is having his first solo exhibition in Europe. It’s rare to find an artist so young who already possesses such a clearly defined, well thought-out vision.
Campbell is primarily interested in disjunction. The arrangement of the paintings in the show represents a downward slide, from formal perfection to deformity and mutilation, or just plain wrongness. The human figure serves as the foundation of Campbell’s pictorial interest, but even in the straightforward portraits we find in the first half of the exhibition, the final execution seems to serve as a departure point for probing issues of a more existential nature.
While his drawing is always impeccable, what ultimately jolts you when standing in front of Campbell’s paintings is the subtlety of his palette. The two ultimately serve each other, however; Yoshitomo Nara may be similarly skillful when it comes to handling his pastels, but Campbell’s technique – not to mention his probing subject matter – makes Nara appear desultory.
The one artist Campbell occasionally calls to mind is Francis Bacon, particularly in a painting like Parallels (2007). The backside of a naked, obese man is seated on a brown rectangle, which has been rendered in a thick line. The man is perhaps underwater, perhaps masturbating; it’s hard to tell. An ashy blue background fills the bottom ¾ of the canvas, with a darker hue slicing through the top. Where this second background interrupts, it also cuts off the figure before we even make it to his shoulders. What is left is less a torso and legs than a wallop of fleshly sludge.
It is in his backgrounds that the artist is able to lose himself in a dreamy mirage of color that is never laid on too thick, despite an obvious reliance on overpainting in such works as Snafu (2007). Restraint is key here, but it never happens at the expense of texture.
And then, something happens. A vacant stare gives way to a blindfold. Faces are blockaded by the superimposition of other images. The painter becomes less interested in figuration, and more caught up in disfigurement – birthmarks, scars, severed body parts deserted scapes. This arrangement of canvases culminates in an untitled painting from 2006. It is a painting of a figure ravaged, an image of total human deformity set against an apocalyptic purple background. While such a bleak, powerful image of the human condition in an increasingly uncertain world had been hinted at before, in the playful surrealism of Target and the cynical superimposition paintings (Asylum and Narcissism), it is upon arriving in front of this painful inquiry into suffering that we ultimately realize what is being solicited. And only an artist as uncompromising as Campbell can make us see it.