Reviewed by Cathy Courtney
Art Monthly, London, 1991
‘Firedogs’ is a rich, dark, bloody book, full of threat and doom and yet intimating redemption by virtue of its own coherence and integrity. As before, Campbell entwines violence and sensitivity not only in his subject matter but in the treatment of the materials (sandpaper included) which have been dragooned into use in the printing process; that there are seven artist’s proofs is partly due to the force which Campbell applied whilst the book was on the press, causing several sheets of paper to crack at the edges.
Ironically, one of the quieter images – black shapes like nascent tadpoles swimming against a rose background – was achieved by directing a drill to bore and skid across the surface of the metal printing blocks. The image which punctuates the poem in the ‘abstract’ version was produced by turning bits of type onto their sides and printing from the surface usually never seen and, as well as introducing different tones which fade and grow strong across the page, the formation was altered as bits flew off the stubs of type crushed beneath the weight of the machinery. Part of the thinking behind ‘Firedogs’ was to create disorganisation out of the very elements usually used in an orderly fashion to construct a book, subverting the clean, careful processes into a controlled explosion… The seriousness and irrevocability of the crime which robs form of its natural life, leaving it broken and tortured, is a theme which haunts the book’s language both literal and visual…
The tension between the work’s harsh and gentle forces begins early on. The cover of the ‘abstract’ is made up of tightly regimented, claustrophobic black sections such as Campbell has used in the past, but the title appears in large, romantic lettering, taken from woodblocks which have a gothic echo, and the first inner pages are an unexpected shade of apricot leading the eye and touch towards the fine off-white paper which makes up the rest of the book… The first jolt of the main volume is finding the seductive pinks and reds which enrich the cover, discovered nestling like soft flesh beneath armour, as the book slips out from a hard box which sports blacks, golds, nail-heads and what look like metal plates, and this vulnerability is picked out again in the text with words like ‘belly’ recurring several times amid the tales of destruction. The first and last images are of a dark rain of tears, in fact formed from overprinting a constellation of nail-heads as many as a dozen times, but the intervening journey takes place on concentrated blocks of colour which remain distinct and abut one another with equal vehemence, like bulls locked in paralysed combat…
Campbell’s muscular language powers one through the book, the impact all the greater for amalgamating the violent story with the printing process itself.