Ken Campbell: an Artist’s Books

Reviewed by Cathy Courtney
Art Monthly, London

Although the books vary in form and mood each is stamped with the very strong character of its creator whether or not he makes a direct appearance in either text or images. Some of the potent, alliterative incantations are addressed to ‘you’, with the poet cast in his ancient role as storyteller and seer, hinting at deeds done and truths overlooked in fragments of text which imply plots and wrongs masterminded on an epic scale.

In many of the books layers of narrative and images run parallel stories through the pages. This can be seen most clearly in ‘AbaB’… Three different type faces form parallel bands which stretch through the book, each horizontal line a different colour, scale and rhythm but linked in subject matter to one another. Its triumph is to show the reader that, by his own action of setting the pages in flowing motion, he has unconsciously echoed the tale he is simultaneously absorbing and by doing this the book binds its audience in a sudden, light-hearted intimacy.

‘AbaB’ has a casual conversation at its centre, but ‘A Knife Romance’ contains a measured exchange between kings – the words made virtually audible by varying the typeface – a build-up to battle in which one senses the cost will be vast… The narrative of this section is displayed in wedges in which the text appears to recede, rather as if it were written on tombstone and its pulsing tone underlines the phallic images of the silver-dusted knife which punctuates the rough-edged pages. At a quieter pitch the ‘widow’s song’ whispers through the book, a memorial to Campbell’s now dead mother and gently places the sorrows of a single family alongside those of the regal dynasties of the past. As the book ends the strands are drawn together by means of texts linked by colour to an image of the knife’s handle.

Man’s inhumanity to man is one of the themes that recurs in the books, whether private or public, contrived, accidental or instinctive, but the subject matter is usually well integrated with the process of making the volume itself… The title ‘Broken Rules and Double Crosses’, immediately presents two levels for interpretation – the suggestion that it will be a story of betrayal and a reference to the physical tools with which Campbell made the black crosses stamped on his huge sheets of vellum coloured paper… The text begins with an excavation and ends with a burial, moving in between through a slow dance of the possible contortions of a crucifix as its arms are articulated into various positions… It’s a sombre progress, flanked by two square prints made up of all the sections of lead type which were used to form the crosses. The text for ‘Broken Rules and Double Crosses’ adds Jewish and Islamic references to the Christian emblem which bears the main thrust of the work. One of these explains how ‘when the pious made such a thing as a carpet, a mistake or fault was insinuated into the design or manufacture in order that perfection be not achieved by deliberation, let alone chance.’ This was due to the belief that perfection was only permissible in the paradise to come, encouraging the wise to claim imperfection, ‘not only with humility but also confidence.’

In many of Campbell’s books there’s instant tension between the reined-in anger and dark foreboding of the text and images and the fact that the works are delicately made, elegant vehicles designed to be handled with care and respect. The human animal is demonstrated to be a destructive, misguided force by the action of a man expressing sorrow and mourning – and blame – by the gentlest of means.