Terry Campbell: No Longer in My Hands

I visited the exhibition of Terry Campbell at Macky Auditorium on the University of Boulder campus. This exhibition was part of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art at Macky series. First and foremost, this was a new environment for me to view and interpret art in because I was literally the only person in there the whole time. The room was reverberating with the sounds of my pencil touching paper and my breathing. However, soon after I entered, music began to play. I realized that the orchestra had just started rehearsing, so I was given a soundtrack to which I would experience Terry’s art. All of the works were life-sized oil paintings on canvass. Her main concentration, visually, was putting one or more human figures on each canvass in the foreground and providing a subtle, yet delicately textured middle and background to rest on. None of the people depicted in her paintings are smiling, which could be a commentary on her lack of happiness, or presence of suffering. However, none of the people really seemed like they were suffering either, but rather very concentrated and somewhat emotionless. These expressions set a unique mood for the exhibition. She painted with rich, earthy colors like shades of brown, black and deep blue, also contributing to the overall mood of her work. Upon visiting Terry Campbell’s website, I discovered her main intentions. Her large-scale motivation was mainly to challenge herself, as well as to “savor the look of the finished pieces.” According to her biography, her paintings are of friends and family taken completely out of the context in which they reside, redressed and painted as a commentary on her own personal experiences and search for meaning. She often does not let the audience know the story she is trying to depict, but rather leaves it up to their imagination.

The first piece that struck my attention was “Path,” painted in 2007. It was 95 inches tall by 68 inches wide and showed a figure of a man with a paintbrush in his hand. The more I looked at the painting, the more I understood it. The man in the painting’s face looks sad and almost frustrated. There is a lamp that is placed to the left of him, with the light bulb rising up to about his ear. This struck me as a serious metaphor. Usually when someone has a great idea, it is displayed by a light bulb igniting above the thinker’s head. However, this bulb was to the side of his head, which struck me as a comment on writer’s block, a time when an artist or writer has trouble coming up with concepts or ideas for their work. As a musician, I have experienced this a lot and felt the exact same feeling that the man’s face expresses. He is leaning up against the wall, looking at the ground almost hopelessly. Also, the fact that the painting was almost half black, showed to me the darkness of hopelessness. In my opinion, hope is signaled by light, therefore the darkness of the painting took it away. I think this was the product of Terry’s writer’s block. She felt the frustration of her lack of creativity, and pinpointed her emotions. I am assuming that her lack of ideas was in itself a brilliant idea. She gave a lot of focus to the face of the man, while leaving pretty visible outlines of objects in the background, showing an emphasis on emotion rather than material.

The next piece I interpreted was the biggest piece in the room, “Rosecrucian,” painted in 2006. This piece was a diptych that was 95 inches tall and 136 inches wide. On the painting were four people: three men and one woman. Once again, their faces are lacking ambition and sort of staring at different things, both inside and outside the painting. It seemed like the environment was a salon or teahouse. Two of the men are sitting in the same chairs that I sit in when I get my haircut, but on the counter were a bunch of teacups. However, the objects and background were made subordinate to the people, both in size and detail. It is obvious that the main concentration was on the characters. One thing that stuck out to me was the fact that two of the men were wearing sunglasses while the other man and woman were not. Those that were wearing sunglasses were not in as much detail as those that were. This made me realize that there is a lot of detail in the eyes, not only visually. I often find it hard to connect with someone and trust them when I cannot see their eyes. Once I can see their eyes, it is much easier to relate to them because we are literally looking eye-to-eye. I think this metaphor came through in Terry’s painting. I cannot help but think the two men wearing sunglasses are terrible people. The way that Terry portrays them makes them seem untrustworthy and suspicious. It gives the feeling that something bad is about to happen, which gave me a refreshing discomfort that I do not get much from visual art. Moreover, the two without the shades have very glazed over eyes, reflecting their situation and their possible suffering. In addition to that, the two men with the shades are looking at the other man and woman, while they are looking into the distance outside the confines of the canvass. This painting, like the last, is quite heavy on the blacks. It once again reflects the darkness these people experience. Another thing I noticed was that the woman was the only person in the painting without gloves on. She is also wearing all white, but her face is the darkest out of the four characters. This could possibly depict the purity of women, but also the darkness they experience from being so pure. In order for purity to exist, many rules must be put in place and followed. I think the darkness on her face reflects the confines of those rules. One aspect that I found confusing was why one of the men was dressed in an all red jumpsuit. The one reason I could muster up was that he symbolized the devil, or the evil in society. He is one of the men with sunglasses on, and he seems the most out of place. However, he is serving the man without sunglasses tea, possibly signifying the deception of evil. In many stories, evil is almost solely dependant on the act of deception, so I think the red man is convincing him to trust him, which also adds to the ominous discomfort of the painting. After making these assumptions, I looked up the word ‘rosicrucian,’ and discovered that is was a member of a secretive 17th- and 18th-century society devoted to the study of metaphysical, mystical, and alchemical lore. This turned my assumptions around a bit. The whole time I thought there was a negative mood over the painting, but it is possible they were just trying to remain secretive about their underground studies, in order to combat the evil in their society or government.

The final piece I chose to analyze was “Filling In,” painted in 2006. This piece, like the first, was 95 inches tall by 68 inches wide. The subject matter is a man pouring what seems to be a beer into his cowboy boot, with a factory in the background. If I recall correctly, cowboys used to drink water from their boots because it was a handy container that would not let water out and not get lost. I think it is a commentary on the simpler days, and how they have faded through industrialization. Back in the day, a cowboy could drink whatever he wanted out of his boot, it did not have to be processed, packaged, or distributed. However, since the factory came into the scenario and polluted the water, it is not longer drinkable from the river. Therefore, the cowboy has to go and buy a water or beer and pay for all the extra processing and packaging. And after all that, he still prefers it out of his boot. I think this is a response to how people just get sucked into the “new” way to do things, and often forget the old way. This is the cowboy remembering the old way and still utilizing it. I expected the cowboy’s face to be sad, or disappointed, but instead it was really focused on the flow of beer into his boot. I think this signifies that he is not letting industrialization get to him, he just does his own thing without getting frustrated at the “new” way.

I very much enjoyed the experience that Terry Campbell’s work provided. I feel as though a lot of contemporary paintings are ambiguous, and often abstract, but Terry shows some influence from earlier styles. The simplicity of her style and subject matter made me look deeper to find the complex meaning that each painting conveyed. Her emphasis was definitely on the human emotion, and the materialism that defined it. She has a unique style and an efficient way of expressing her experiences and ideals.

2 Responses

  1. I thought your interpretation of Rosecurcian was really in depth and well thought out. You were not just looking at the colors in the piece or the position of the elements together but how everything came together to create a whole tone. I enjoyed reading your opinions and they were well executed.

  2. I agree with Kathryn on your interpretation of Roescurcian and would’ve have felt the same way until knowing the definition of the title. From you description it seems like this exhibit would have overwhelmed me and probably made me a little sad or depressed. The large pieces with very dark colors and somber facial expressions would probably have turned me off to the exhibit. However, I do think I would have like the last piece you explained the best, Filling In. I like the way you explained it and what you took out of it. I don’t know if I would have drawn the same things from it as you did but what you said about it makes me like it and I haven’t even seen it. I think you did a very good job writing this paper and explaining the pieces as well as giving an in depth description of what you drew from each piece.

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