Stephen Campbell at the Warrnambool Art Gallery

(May 2021)


The following was written just before the Covid 19 lock-down arrived in Victoria. Bruce Gillespie published it in an issue of SF Commentary but I have not placed it here yet because Bruce did not use the pictures that I wanted to use, and I wanted to make sure that Stephen was happy for me to use them before I went ahead and published them. He is happy for me to do so and, so, here it is. I understand that Stephen’s exhibition was cut short because of Covid.

* * *

A couple of things came together so that I found myself last Saturday at the Warrnambool Art Gallery looking at some paintings of Stephen Cambell and listening to him talk about them.

First was Robin’s new black Kia SUV. It would be nice to take it for an extended run rather than just pottering around Ballarat, which is its main purpose. We shared the drive on the two and a bit hour long drive from Ballarat to Warrnambool so it would not be too much for us. I’ve already driven this new car a little bit around town but is was good to get it out on the open road hurtling along at velocities over the speed limit because it goes so well that you don’t realize how fast you are going until you look at the digital display. The car has cruise control but we haven’t got to that part of the manual yet.

Having written a couple of histories about road making twenty or so years ago and gone driving with several old maintenance supervisors who explained to me what they were looking at, I often find as much to interest me in the road surface as I do in the passing scenery. On the current state of some of the roads we drove over, I can only say that if the workers I talked to back then were still in charge of the roads they would be ashamed of the state that they have fallen into. More than once the government has solved the problem of poor maintenance and shoddy repairs by putting up signs to slow down the traffic rather than fixing the roads themselves. So much for the state of modern society.

Robin’s new car talks with Robin’s mobile phone which meant we could use it to give us directions about how to get where we were going and entertain us as we drove along. Having a voice to tell you directions is useful and I can easily see how we will grow to rely on it. The car has a rather largish display screen in the middle of the dashboard on which a rolling map is displayed along with notification about how far it is until you need to do change direction. Very useful and it only took us the long way around rather than the direct route a couple of times.

The other thing the interface between the phone and the car gave us was an audio book that Robin has been listening to. It was your standard stf, probably the kind of thing that you still read in Analog these days. It if wasn’t written by an engineer it was written by somebody who thought they were writing for engineers so it plodded along, taking us into a whole stack of side issues that did not seem to have any relevance to the narrative drive of the story at all but were there, I guess, to add a touch of verisimilitude to the story. This distracted me in two ways, it made me wonder that the author could not have made these diversions a bit more lifelike and the second thing was that it made me impatient for the author to get on with the story. There were several short chapters to describe what the main character felt about being turned into a metal man which seemed to me more like a film script than an actual exploration of that character’s feelings, and if I’d been the editor I would have cut them out. Listening to this made me appreciate why many people don’t hold most stf writing in high regard, it was very interesting in an Astounding Science Fiction kind of way, but very ponderous.

Those things filled in the time between Ballarat and Warrnambool. In addition we dropped in to visit my old friends Wayne and Yvette who live on the road between the two places for a cuupa and a chat.

Warrnambool for some reason reminded me of a mini version of Geelong. I’m not quite sure why because all I really saw of it was the road and streets leading to the art gallery. We parked a couple of hundred yards from the museum just below the war memorial that is built on a headland overlooking the coastline, so while we didn’t see the sea itself we could smell it in the air. As we were pulling up we passed local fan David who had also just arrived. Acting as native guide he showed us where we needed to go, through the entrance to the back of the gallery itself to a large square room festooned with some of Stephen’s paintings, reaching up to the ceiling at one point. I thought it was a clever arrangement because it made the room look dynamic rather than the usual stuffy lining up of paintings in a row. It was also possible because the paintings are all big and bold so it was still possible to take in the works even though you had to look up to do it.

There were introductions, mostly to people I hadn’t met before and will probably never meet again, for all I know they were members of Stephen’s family. There was Claudia who I haven’t seen since Valma and I moved to Canberra in 1979 and Michellene Tang’s son who I remember as a toddler and is now middle aged.

We wandered around looking at the paintings for a while and then somebody came with chairs that they set out, we sat in them and the gallery manager introduced Stephen who then talked about what had led him to paint the pictures that were on display and then went on to talk in detail about the thinking behind each of the paintings. This was interesting, to begin with, but by the time he had described about half the paintings I was starting to lose interest. Fortunately, I was by the door so I snuck off and took a look at the rest of the gallery which is relatively small but very tasteful and elegant in the style of most modern galleries. In it you have a bit of almost everything from your obligatory Victorian era Victorian landscapes, a few old style portraits, a couple of hyper realism pieces, still lifes, an installation here and a large model of a naked man in another room. All in all, a good representation of art in many of its forms, but not enough to detain you for more than an hour, so if you find yourself in Warranbool put aside a little time to have a look.

After having seen the rest of the gallery going back into Stephen’s room was a startling experience. Unlike the rest of the gallery, his paintings were stunning, fully alive and completely unrestrained in the way that just about everything in the gallery was not. Stephenf will be the first to admit that he is no van Gogh but walking from the rest of the gallery into his room gave the intense feeling that the van Gogh aesthetic is alive and well in Stephen. No holding back here, all the emotions and thoughts are on display here.

So, a little about the paintings themselves. (I’ve already chatted to Stephen about them so there is nothing new here for him.) My first thought was ‘This guy can’t paint’. Everything looks as though it has been thrown together, there is almost an ugliness to some of the paintings and the way that the figures are arranged on their canvasses is often uncomfortable to look at. Then, after looking at them for some time, it came to me that here was a person who was a very good artist but one who chose deliberately to paint in this style. On the wall that you are not likely to be attracted to, and set out in traditional gallery format in a line along the wall, are four or five much more modest pieces which I thought, at first, were by another artist. They are elegantly arranged, carefully crafted and finely detailed. In themselves and in comparison to Stephen’s paintings they are beautiful. Stephen has not deteriorated as an artist, at some stage he decided to swap from producing art that pleased others to art in which he attempted to express himself. He has, I think, succeeded, and the Stephen that is revealed in the paintings is an interesting and deep thinking person.

I was struck by the contrast between the earlier and the later Stephen. To use a musical analogy, turning from his earlier work to his painting was like turning from the elegance of, if not a Mozart to at least some of the Mannheim school, to the blaring boldness of Brucker and the thundering complexity of the Strauss tone poems. In other words, a switch from the era of the classical to the late romantic in the turn of the head. Now, I am no fan of the Strauss tone poems but that does not mean that they are not great works, and so it is with Stephen’s paintings. If I were buying paintings for our new house I wouldn’t have any of Stephen’s paintings because they are too brazen for almost any ordinary house. Not only are they too big physically for a house, they are too big in conception and execution. Along the right hand wall as you entered was row of tall nudes of a variety of physical and mental qualities. (All the paintings are nudes, did I mention that?) If I lived in a mansion I would have bought the lot and lined them up in my own gallery, but I don’t have a gallery so I’m afraid Stephen will have to keep them. I don’t know that any of Stephen’s painting have sold and I doubt that they will. They are not the kind of thing you expect to find in a regional gallery and certainly not one in a gallery in the Western District which is not renowned for its tendencies towards radical thought expresses in any format. This is a pity. That this gallery was bold enough to put Stephen’s bold paintings on display is a credit to it. It is also a pity that, being in such a remote corner of Australia, so few people will .have had the opportunity to see this interesting and impressive display.

After milling around for a while a few of us decided to head off for a late (3pm) lunch. On the way I fell into conversation with Stephen about what I’d seen and heard and what I thought. I told him about what Valma and I had seen at the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay and he said he’d love to go and see it too, to which I replied he’d have to go back to his old elegant ways if he wanted to be able to afford a trip to Paris. But he’s not interested in doing that. I can understand Stephen’s journey of internal exploration and expression through his paintings but I’m afraid that it has been and will be a solitary journey and that events like his display and talk will be one of very few opportunities to communicate the meaning of his journey to others. I gather from our conversation that he is content with that.

Claudia, Stepehen and David outside the gallery

We became so wrapped up in talking, standing in Warrnambool’s main street on a Saturday afternoon, that somebody had to come and remind us that others were waiting for us. What followed was a pleasant lunch, chatting and eating, with a light sea breeze to cool the air. It could have been anywhere in the western world where a few friends with an interest in art and a smattering of high culture are having lunch.

After a while it was time for Robin and I to hit the road back to Ballarat. The car hummed along, keeping it under the speed limit being the main challenge. The road had got no better, and neither had the story. And if I ever feel tempted to use the word ‘whereupon’ in anything I publish you are free to take me out into the yard and give me a good thrashing.

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