A mural-like painting of an intricately decorated kitchen shelf frames the entrance to the National Gallery of Australia’s newest exhibition.
It celebrates a series of household objects with singular precision: a leek is propped up against a blue and white ceramic vessel, a pair of black kitchen shears protrudes from a white milk jug, a sprig of lavender rests in peace.
The more you look, the more you see.
The mural is an enlarged version of contemporary Australian artist Cressida Campbell’s 2009 woodblock painting The Kitchen Shelf – here, lovingly recreated by her husband Warren Macris, who is a fine art and photographic printer and took more than 100 photographs of the original to create the mural.
The exhibit opens Saturday and is a major retrospective of Campbell’s work, featuring more than 140 of her woodblock paintings and woodcuts.
At 62, Campbell has been making art for more than 40 years, and in sales alone she is one of Australia’s most successful and sought-after artists (her commercial shows typically sell out, often before opening) – but this is the first time a retrospective of this scale has been mounted by a major Australian gallery.
It’s also the first time the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has programmed a living Australian artist for their summer “blockbuster” exhibition – a spot usually reserved for widely recognizable international artists (think: Picasso).
“[Campbell] is a very well-established artist and we believe she has contributed something very unique to the cultural tapestry of Australian art,” NGA Director Nick Mitzevich told ABC Arts.
“She’s at the peak of her powers and we want to celebrate that.”
Curated thematically across six rooms, the exhibition is autobiographical, featuring intimate domestic scenes, urban and landscape scenes from the places Campbell has lived, and even childhood drawings.
“It’s kind of like a documentary, but in paint,” the artist told ABC News.
Mitzevich says, “The exhibition slowly reveals itself to you and seduces you because of the build-up of colors, the nuance of the way she models a form, a shape or a shadow, and how she captures beauty.
“For me, this exhibition is a journey of beauty.”
Campbell works from her backyard studio in Sydney (Warrang) and draws inspiration from her surroundings, including her garden and household objects.
There is an unexpected beauty in the mundane in the scenes and objects she depicts: kitchen scraps in a plastic container; nasturtium cuttings cascade from a wine glass; a shock of gray fur (Campbell’s former cat Otto) hidden behind a stair railing.
The domesticity of her subjects is deeply intimate.
“[They’re things] people wouldn’t normally approach as interesting subjects, but they actually look interesting to me,” says Campbell.
“So it’s a way of encouraging people to revisit things.”
Make everyday life extraordinary
Campbell’s creative process is very unusual for a contemporary painter.
She first draws and etches scenes onto a block of plywood before applying several layers of watercolor paint using fine sable brushes. She then mists the block with water and lays paper over the top, pressing and rolling the block by hand to create a mirror print.
There is a reverence to this approach, which draws on Ukiyo-e – a Japanese woodblock print style that Campbell studied while living in Tokyo in the 80s.
She also cites the Australian painter and printmaker Margaret Preston as an important stylistic influence. Campbell became particularly interested in Preston’s woodcuts after discovering them at an Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) exhibition in the late 70s while studying art at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School).
Campbell takes several months to make each individual woodblock and single edition, producing about five to six works a year.
“I actually spend a lot of time retouching and hand-painting the print because there is often quite a lot to work on,” she told his sisteractress Nell Campbell, earlier this year.
It’s a painstaking process to capture what are mostly everyday objects and scenes. (Babies of used paint tubes and brushes on display as part of the exhibition testify to the work.)
But Campbell’s awareness and astonishing attention to detail make the everyday extraordinary.
Dr. Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, the NGA’s curator of Australian prints and drawings, says Campbell, who is not particularly comfortable in the spotlight, lets his work speak for itself.
“Her work finds its way out into the world without having to beat the drums about it.
“I think a lot of people will recognize her work but not realize who made it. And I think that’s the beauty of doing a show like this: people will start to know the name Cressida Campbell. “
Noordhuis-Fairfax collaborated with Campbell on the retrospective, which includes several of the artist’s childhood artworks. (Campbell has been drawing since she was six years old.)
“She’s an artist who just never stopped drawing,” says Noordhuis-Fairfax.
“These are absolutely exceptional drawings and you can see the real interest in the natural world and that [her] attention to detail started really young.”
While Campbell may not be a household name, Mitzevich says he hopes the exhibit will help change that.
“What I’m really happy about is that the work and her practice will definitely take a big step in recognition through this major exhibition,” he says.
“We hope hundreds of thousands of Australians will have the opportunity to watch [Campbell’s] work and appreciate how unique her practice is.”
The NGA has acquired a new work, Bedroom Nocturne (2022), from the exhibition, bringing the total number of Campbell’s works in the gallery to five.
Of the major Australian galleries, the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) has collected nine of Campbell’s works (including four donated by Olley, an early champion of the artist), while the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) has one.
Major Australian galleries such as the National Gallery of Victoria, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the State Galleries of Western Australia and South Australia do not currently have any of Campbell’s works in their permanent collections.
Meanwhile, says Mitzevich, she is one of the most privately collected Australian artists.
The exhibition features the highest number of private loans that the NGA has included in a single exhibition – 111 in total, representing 80 percent of the works on display.
Having worked consistently over the past four decades, it is fitting that Campbell’s retrospective has been programmed in the NGA’s 40th year. (Serendipitously, she attended the NGA’s opening in October 1982 as a plus-one for the artist Martin Sharp.)
Her exhibition is one of 18 projects announced so far that have been commissioned as part of the NGA’s Know my name equality initiative, which was established in response to findings that only a quarter of the gallery’s Australian collection and a third of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection are by women artists.
Mitzevich says of Know My Name, “It’s not about being ‘woke’ or being politically correct. It’s about recognizing that in our culture the playing fields for different things are uneven … and it’s important to lift up the parts that has not been given a fair go.
“And we’re not apologetic about that,” adds Mitzevich.
The exhibition is not only a significant professional milestone for Campbell, but also a personal one. In August 2020, she developed a life-threatening brain abscess that paralyzed one side of her body and required multiple surgeries.
She have spoken earlier about that terrible moment, in the aftermath, when she realized she might never be able to paint again.
These surgeries restored Campbell’s use of her right arm and leg, which in turn allowed her to complete the new work featured in the NGA exhibit.
Campbell told ABC News that being able to have a survey exhibit at the NGA was a “wonderful compliment.”
“I couldn’t be more honored. It’s unbelievable.”
Cressida Campbell runs until 19 February 2023 at the National Gallery of Australia.