Spirit in the Material World

Reviewed by Marcia Reed
(Curator of Rare Books, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)
The Maker’s Hand, London, 2001

It is clear that one of the reasons for the success of the books is that Campbell has embedded himself in them. … He is absolutely at one with the books and they go out in the world as surrogates. In a recent book, ‘PANTHEON’, one sees his head appearing in many of the double-page spreads. In one of the earliest works, ‘Terror, Terror’, that’s him seen from behind, climbing up a ladder as he constructs lines of poetry from pieces of printed paper affixed to the wall. It’s as if he’s thrown himself into the process of making poetry. In other books it is less explicit. Fragments of biography creep in, episodes from his family or travel become the subjects of books. Yet, although it is personal, it is not biography but more straightforward poetry, fiction, interpretation, and inevitably commentary. This is the case with many artist’s books. But the fact is that Campbell doesn’t see his books as part of this contemporary artistic genre. …

The elegance of Campbell’s books derives from their lack of artifice and the evidence of earnest effort. He seems never to have heard of Baldassare Castiglione’s sixteenth-century term sprezzatura that defines a graceful and effortless mode of performance without any strain. Campbell’s books are complex and they are difficult. Unlike the studied prettiness and perfected finishes seen in some art works or performances, the books always reveal the heavy labour involved. They speak of strength, hard work, and intense periods of production, yet this reverses to a sense of quiet resolution in the finished product. When I see a new book of Campbell’s, there is a sense of accomplishment, that he has won the battle again, confronting a subject, wrestling with it, and finally subduing it in the three-dimensional form of the book. …

He works with an obvious knowledge of the history of art and the history of books and printing. Without being pretentious he takes his themes from these traditions, then locates his work with his personal responses to religion, mythology, art, and architecture. Taking religious subjects, he cuts across specific sectarian boundaries. ‘Martyrs’ is one of the most spiritual books; its a capetto call and response version of Psalm 79 is a somber requiem for the Highland Scots. The approach to spirituality is Janus-faced. Another aspect of the spirit is seen in the dancing doll representing the goddess Shiva who hurtles through the space of ‘Tilt’. This is one of the best examples of how Campbell uses an alternative format to re-shape the normal (rectangular) frame of viewing. The rhomboid cover and slightly goofy slants of the texts make you feel a need to tilt your head while reading the book. It is a nice, humorous and unassuming touch that the goddess also resembles a space alien, bridging the fictions of science and the ‘true beliefs’ of religion. …

The books are the result of careful choices of words and images which are then tumbled through the aggressive and sometimes abrasive grid of his graphic designs, single sheets often being printed many times. The finished work gives a lasting impression like highly polished stones or finely cut diamonds that glisten like beacons of meaning, gemlike in their exquisite spirituality. For in the end Campbell’s books are wondrous in the earlier sense of a wunderkammer. They are private collections or cabinets of curiosities holding exotic devices, exhibiting new ideas and revealing hidden, arcane truths. Like a magician, he focuses our attention on an image – some strong representation of an object or loaded image (a portrait, a dove-like bird, a cross) – and he does tricks with it. It disappears and reappears in another place. Or it returns in another shape. Campbell cuts things into pieces, saws figures in half, and turns benign creatures into monsters. Increasingly as he makes more and more books, the paradox is that while the stories become more complex and layered, the books deny reading or make it very difficult. Sequential plots and linear thinking do not live here. The books present their tales in the way that we experience or refabricate information in dreams. Not stories but thoughts unbound by time and traditional narrative. The shapes of the books and their sequences of presentation govern the organization instead of traditional principles of experience and narrative.

Like him, Campbell’s books are singular presences; they are made to be read one at a time, meditatively. He works alone; the books are intended to be read alone. They are neither trade books nor contemporary livres d’artiste. Campbell is neither corporate nor collaborative. He is among the artists who work alone and emphatically does not want to be in a group. Unlike those of us who have worked for years in bureaucratic institutions, while he communicates and expresses strong feelings, he doesn’t share his thoughts, cooperate, or collaborate. The result is that, much to his credit, his works look like no others. Yet they are remarkable precisely because he is so wise to the history of the book and the nature of its place in the chronology of human endeavors. As monuments, voyages, and dreams, his books stand squarely before us as a strong, new kind of work at this end of the long history of books and printing.