A mural-esque painting of an intricately decorated kitchen shelf envelops the entrance to the National Gallery of Australia’s latest exhibition.
In it, a range of household objects is celebrated with exceptional precision: a leek stands against a blue-white ceramic bowl, black kitchen scissors stick out from a white milk jug, a sprig of lavender rests idly.
The more you look, the more you see.
The mural is an enlarged version of the 2009 woodblock print The Kitchen Shelf by Australian contemporary artist Cressida Campbell – here, lovingly recreated by her husband Warren Macris, who is a fine art and photographic printer and has over 100 photos of the original made to make the mural.
The exhibition opens Saturday and is a major overview of Campbell’s work, with over 140 of her woodcuts and woodcuts.
At 62, Campbell has been making art for over 40 years, and in sales alone she is one of Australia’s most successful and sought-after artists (her commercial shows are usually sold out, often before opening) – but this is the first time a retrospective of this scale has been set up 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 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 is at the peak of her ability and we want to celebrate that.”
The exhibition is thematically curated over six rooms and is autobiographical, featuring intimate domestic scenes, towns and landscapes from the places Campbell has lived, and even children’s 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 by the build-up of color, the nuance of the way she models a shape, or 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 takes inspiration from her surroundings, including her garden and household objects.
There is an unexpected beauty in the mundaneness of the scenes and objects she depicts: kitchen scraps in a plastic ice cream container; nasturtiums falling from a wine glass; a jolt of gray fur (Campbell’s previous cat Otto) tucked behind a banister.
The domesticity of her subjects is deeply intimate.
“[They’re things] people wouldn’t normally find topics interesting, but they look really interesting to me,” says Campbell.
“So it’s a way of encouraging people to see things again.”
Making the everyday extraordinary
Campbell’s creative process is highly unusual for a contemporary painter.
She first draws scenes and then etches scenes on a block of plywood, before applying several layers of watercolor paint with fine sable brushes. She then mists the block with water and lays paper over it, pressing and rolling the block by hand to create a mirror print.
There’s a reverence to this approach, which draws on Ukiyo-e – a Japanese woodblock print style that Campbell studied while living in Tokyo in the 1980s.
She also cites the Australian painter and printmaker Margaret Preston as a major stylistic influence. Campbell was particularly fond of Preston’s woodcuts after discovering them at an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) in the late 1970s while studying art at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) .
Campbell takes several months to produce each woodblock and print in one edition and produces about five to six works a year.
“I actually spend a lot of time retouching and hand-painting the print as it often requires quite a bit of work,” she told her sister, actor Nell Campbell, earlier this year.
It is a laborious process to capture what are for the most part everyday objects and scenes. (Stacks of used paint tubes and brushes on display as part of the exhibit bear witness to the labor.)
But Campbell’s thoughtfulness and amazing attention to detail make the everyday extraordinary.
dr. Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, curator of Australian prints and drawings at the NGA, says Campbell, who doesn’t feel comfortable in the spotlight, lets her work speak for itself.
“Her work finds its way out into the world without drumming.
“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 are going to know the name Cressida Campbell.”
Noordhuis-Fairfax collaborated with Campbell on the retrospective, which includes several works of art from the artist’s childhood. (Campbell has been drawing since she was six years old.)
“She’s an artist who just never stopped drawing,” says Noordhuis-Fairfax.
“They’re quite exceptional drawings, and you can see that real interest in the natural world and that [her] attention to detail started very young.”
While Campbell may not be a household name, Mitzevich says he hopes the exhibition will 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 get the chance to see [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’s possession to five.
Of the major Australian galleries, the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) has collected nine works by Campbell (including four donated by Olley, an early champion of the artist), while the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) owns 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 Campbell’s work in their permanent collections.
Meanwhile, Mitzevich says, she is one of the most privately collected Australian artists.
The exhibition contains 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 for the past four decades, it’s fitting that Campbell’s retrospective is programmed into the NGA’s 40th year. (Coincidentally, she attended the NGA’s opening in October 1982 as artist Martin Sharp’s plus-one.)
Her exhibition is one of 18 projects announced to date and commissioned as part of NGA’s Know My Name gender equality initiative, which was created in response to findings that only a quarter of the gallery’s Australian collection and one third of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection is by women artists.
Mitzevich says of Know My Name, “It’s not about being ‘awake’ or politically correct. It’s about recognizing that in our culture the playing fields for different things are uneven…and it’s important to see the parts that aren’t are given to elevate a fair gait.
“And we don’t apologize for that,” adds Mitzevich.
The exhibition is not only an important 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 has previously spoken of the horrible moment, in the aftermath, when she realized she might never be able to paint again.
Those surgeries restored Campbell’s use of her right arm and leg, allowing her to complete the new work at the NGA exhibit.
Campbell told ABC News it was an “astonishing compliment” to be able to hold a research exhibit at NGA.
“I couldn’t feel more honored. It’s unbelievable.”
Cressida Campbell will run at the National Gallery of Australia until February 19, 2023.