Death, of course, changes everything.
And (also of course) almost dying can utterly transform a person. Knowingly faced with the very real possibility of your own imminent demise, everything becomes quite timely. Personality can change. Priorities and attitudes can be dramatically altered. What’s really important can suddenly become very clear. Tomorrow isn’t, but now most certainly is.
It happens, everyday. It happened to Keith Campbell, a ceramist living and working in Northern Ontario. Actually, it’s happened several times. Campbell has serious issues with his health. His heart, to be specific. He’s almost died several times – most recently, this past fall – and undergone numerous surgeries – most recently, this past fall – to repair and replace what could be repaired or replaced.
Being acutely aware that you are living on borrowed time inevitably changes you, and Campbell is no exception. His career-long exploration of ceramics began in the mid-1960s at Sheridan College in Toronto, long a hot-bed of ceramics, and led to teaching gigs at institutions across Ontario before finally settling in the Northern Ontario city of North Bay to head up the ceramics department at Canadore College, all the while creating his own one-of-a-kind work. Campbell quickly became renowned for his mastery of porcelain and the beautifully exquisite and complex range of vessels he gave form and substance to, objects ornamented with designs and imagery done using an air-brush technique that he pioneered. Exhibiting widely, he found representation in major gallery and corporate collections across Canada.
But then there was this pesky problem with his heart. And in changing absolutely everything in his life, it spilled over and dramatically altered the course of his aesthetic journey. Keith Campbell, creator of beautifully crafted vessels and containers, was no more. In his place, now, was an artist with a wickedly dark sense of humor, a keen and abiding interest in satire that found fresh material in both historical and contemporary Canadian politics, and a desire to push his work into the sculptural realm. A link to Campbell’s work can be found at www.keithcampbell.ca
This has all occurred over the course of the last five years, and in that time Campbell, while still addressing the aesthetic issues central to the vessel, has stretched his proverbial wings and engaged in creating sculptural ceramics in which the vessel form has no place. Alexander Wood – Gay Pioneer (2009), a piece commemorating a 19th century judge from the city of Toronto who is today remembered as, well, as a very early gay pioneer in Canada, definitively weighs in on the vessel side of the aesthetic equation (it’s an amphora, actually, a part of a larger series utilizing and exploring this form). But it’s a vessel with a sculpturally wicked bit of a twist: the handles of the vessel, you see, are penises, much smaller versions of which also ring the neck of the work by the dozens. Choose this piece, and you choose the man.
There’s work that has come out of this new direction that delightfully straddles the realms of vessel and sculpture. Like Queenston Cannon, a piece from 2011 based on a famous early battle in the War of 1812 (a war Canadians and Americans still can’t agree who actually won, but for the record, the Battle of Queenston Heights saw the defeat of American forces). In Campbell’s work, the titular cannon, a deadly artifact wrought here in less-than-murderous stoneware, is gently recontextualized as a vessel, a container, with its mouth pointed directly upwards from its pedestal-like place on a steel cradle, images of Sir Isaac Brock, the leader of British forces who died during the battle, airbrushed on its side. Hippies may have placed daisies in the rifle barrels of National Guard troops in 1960s, turning weapons into vases, but Campbell extends the gesture backwards in time. With the more recent Smith & Wesson (2013), Campbell sculpts a handgun as a satirically obscene handle for a vessel – a cup – itself air-brushed with the image of D’Arcy McGee, a 19th century politician martyred in Canada’s first assassination.
And then, of course, there’s work that is purely sculptural, echoing, if only faintly, the sculptural ceramics of California Funk of the 1960s, but which addresses, in a dark and pointedly satirical way, the political and historical weight of treasured Canadian icons. Pieces like Road Kill (2011), a rather silly but politically spot-on piece which depicts a beaver, that quintessentially Canadian symbol, squished flat and imprinted with a tire tread. Nothing, our political masters here have deemed, will be allowed to stand in the way of extracting maximum profit from our ever shrinking natural resources – not even a symbol. In Assassination of D’Arcy McGee (2010), his first aesthetic kick at the can of political assassination, Campbell sculpturally incorporates both handgun and bullets used in the politically motivated murder framing both positive and negative silhouettes of the victim whose killing still reverberates today. In D’Arcy McGee in Blood Red (2013), murky images of the politician on the sides of a covered jar are doused in blood-red glaze and protectively guarded over (mourned?) by a sculptural ring of beavers sitting atop what might be a kind of funerary urn.
Over all of this hangs the spectre of death, perhaps most darkly, overtly and very personally in To Be Toast (2011). It’s a sculptural self-portrait involving a 1:1 scale stoneware toaster with a shiny silver glaze out of which two pieces of porcelain bread pop. Burned – um, toasted – onto each slice is an image of the artist’s face.
Point taken. Campbell has been forthright in stating that the major thematic strain running through his new work is “Death becomes us.” This isn’t morbid preoccupation, simply cognizance and exploration of a reality to which he has bluntly been forced to deal with, one which many of us would prefer not to think about. But Campbell is gutsier than that. No surprise, then, that there’s a real sense of urgency in his work of the past few years. The “now” of things has become absolutely pivotal to his creative output, and so there’s been a prolific outpouring of new pieces which, amongst other things, has given shape to an exhibition that tours through the end of 2014.
Making hay, while the sun still shines.
By Gil McElroy