Complexity of Form in a World of Books

Reviewed by William Zimmer
The New York Times, New York, 1996

In ‘The Word Returned: Artist Books by Ken Campbell’ at the Yale Center for British Art, viewers are almost hit over the head with the visual and poetic energy of the graphics and explanatory texts of 19 book projects that jam the walls and display cases. After coming to terms with the ocular and intellectual density before them, viewers will appreciate that whatever else he might be, Mr. Campbell is a craftsman who makes exquisite work.

Adding to its expansiveness, the show also includes paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints that adumbrate Mr. Campbell’s main preoccupation. It opens with bronze castings of the hooves of cattle, which (the artist writes in a wall text) were inspired by an Assyrian sculpture he encountered one day in the British Museum. Near the sculpture, which hinges on a written pun, is a stack of rag paper that he honours as the basis of his major art. An accompanying photograph shows the stack disturbed, in order to ennoble the material, the individual sheets form what look like the feathers of an angel’s wing…

It’s almost needless to add that Campbell is also a poet, and the text of ‘Father’s Hook’ is a meditation on his dock worker father with whom he had a turbulent relationship. The contrast between the fragility of the paper and the text recounting a rigorous life is a powerful one. Some years later, Mr. Campbell made a book out of a poem he wrote called ‘Father’s Garden’, based on a book he found in the British Museum. Daily life and family is one pole of Mr. Campbell’s concerns; the other is more sweepingly cosmic. ‘Tilt’ includes a figure of the Hindu deity Shiva inspired by a statue, this time in the Rietberg Museum in Zurich. Mr. Campbell says that statue said to him, ‘I’m coming into your book.’

But before Shiva appeared in print, Mr. Campbell recreated the statue as a puppet whose independent torso and limbs were made of zinc. He then reassembled the figure and drew its outline against a starry sky making it resemble a constellation. It illustrates a turbulent poem, ‘Storm Song’. Mr. Campbell often makes this kind of flat image, which is then traced repeatedly. Some of these flat, metal sculptures are shown, such as the blade appearing in ‘A Knife Romance’. A sculpture called ‘The Maker’s Hand’ is reminiscent of these templates. It’s a sort of visual pun: the spread fingers of two open hands have a double reading as the pages of a spread-open tome.

‘Ten Years of Uzbekistan’ refers to the pioneering Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko who produced a book having that title in 1934; it boasted of 10 years of Soviet rule. Mr.Campbell relates that each page of Rodchenko’s book had a mug shot of functionaries in that republic who were removed from office or killed on Stalin’s orders. Rodchenko felt compelled to obliterate the faces in his own copy with ink. Mr. Campbell’s recreation of the image features pages bearing ghostly black silhouettes of heads.

This book also serves to bring home to viewers, if they hadn’t already made the connection, that Mr. Campbell’s page designs typically owe much to the austere geometry of Russian Constructivism. He might have become an important geometric abstractionist painter if he hadn’t immersed himself in books.