Interview with Rebecca Campbell

© Rebecca Campbell and Figure/Ground
 Rebecca Campbell was interviewed by Julia Schwartz. May 1st, 2013.

RCampbell_headshotRebecca Campbell received her M.F.A. in Painting and Drawing in June 2001 from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has exhibited nationally and internationally at LA Louver GalleryAmeringer-Mc Enery-YoheGagosian Gallery, the Phoenix Art Museum, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum among other galleries and museums. She has taught at Art Center College of Design, Claremont Graduate University, Vermont College of Fine Art, California State University Fullerton, Anderson Ranch Arts Center and Idyllwild Arts. Campbell’s work is regularly presented at Art Fairs including Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, ARCO, ADAA The Art Show and has been featured in publications including Art News, Los Angeles Times, Art Papers, X-TRA, Artworks Magazine, Art Ltd., and the Huffington Post.

What attracted you to the arts? What were your earliest experiences of making art? Did you go to art school?

I ended up in art out of desperation, maybe. I was raised in a very conservative, anti-intellectual environment. People held education in suspicion. I was a child in the 70’s and my mother was in this very conservative culture, and she was having questions, and a lot of them were about Nixon. She decided she was going to believe him, and when it turned out he was lying that shook her in a way that all the other questions that were nagging her became more acute. She started to read to bolster her faith in the Mormon church but the opposite happened. Her life looked the same – a bit like Mrs. Cleaver—but she did a very important thing for me.  I was in a gifted and talented class and a lot of the other kids were being pulled out because the reading list included books like Huck Finn, things we wouldn’t think of as controversial and my mom, very quietly– not like some big rebellious gesture– she very quietly insisted that I be able to read anything I wanted. That one gesture essentially changed my life because books are as dangerous as people think they are; when a person knows how to think for themselves, they’re very difficult to control, they’re full of questions. She allowed me a lot.

One of the things she allowed me was a wonderful program in Salt Lake City, Utah with this very eccentric awesome person. Stephanie Burn had a program called the Visual Art Institute. She was passionate about art. We learned to draw and paint, and we learned bookmaking. I learned performance art- at 12 years old. It was an amazing program. She knew I needed that in my life. I thought I might want to be an artist always, but I decided for sure when I was 12.

I don’t know if it was good or bad, but I sort of swapped one religion for another.  They seemed to be opposites of one another in a lot of ways. The religion I grew up in had all answers, and art gives you more questions.  It was liberating and terrifying.  It made sense to me and was terrifying.  It’s a hard prospect, the life of an artist. My sister was a pianist. She wanted to be a concert pianist. I loved and adored her and she wanted nothing to do with me.  I lay under the piano to be next to her. I remember her playing this Debussy piece and I remember feelingthe enormity of art. It seemed like the whole universe got bigger and I wanted to be part of the creative life. It got more magnificent and scarier at the same time, like looking at the stars and realizing how small you are.

So art is your religion now?


I did go to art school. My dad bought me a car but didn’t pay for me to go to school. I got into several art schools and got scholarships to some including Corcoran, Parsons, the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and the Boston Museum School, but I accepted one to the University of Utah because they gave me a full scholarship and a stipend. It was crazy. They spent the whole first month trying to break people. There were no women in the program, just one woman teaching in the night program. I thought if I ever really want to be an artist it will never happen here.  So I quit that program to work seven days a week as a waitress at a ski resort because I’d lost all my other scholarships. I chose the cheapest of all those schools to go back to which was the Pacific Northwest College of Art. PNCA is very craft and object oriented, so in beginning drawing you don’t use any rulers and you draw squares for 3 hours straight to learn how to control your tool. It was very much about the object, the painting, the visceral. I was interested in that but also interested in everything else that was going on in the art world in the late 80’s and early 90’s- installation, performance, political content. I was proposing to do an installation for my thesis show and they had never accepted an installation before. I was a little bit of a contrarian.

I went back to Utah for a while and was a curator of education for a little arts center, but knew I had to go to graduate school and went to UCLA where they couldn’t care a whit whether you can even hold a pencil, let alone draw with a pencil. They actually saw my facility as something to be overcome. They were suspect of painting, let alone figurative painting, let alone some degree of realism.  I got in with a performance/installation portfolio.  My first big rebellion was against God and my father, so rebelling against the head of the painting program at UCLA wasn’t that big of a deal. I was shocked—I had had so much to rebel against. A lot of the people in school there had been taken to MOCA every Saturday and had intellectual parents, so they weren’t as suspicious of authority as I was.  We would go to Lari Pitman’s class and he would say something brilliant and totally worth challenging- there wasn’t a lot of push back. There were a lot of assumptions: “painting is dead.” “the figure is anti-feminist.” “gender is a cultural construction.” All of these rules deserved critique. I realized you could make more trouble in that program by making an academic figure drawing than you could by shitting in a person’s mouth.  When the head of the new genres program is famous for shooting himself, it can make a person curious to find out why painting was making people so nervous.

That’s so interesting. So you’ve grown up in this environment, this family environment, where as you say, “I went against God.”  Now you come to a place where art, counter-culture, performance art, anti-authority- but nobody is challenging the authority. Making an academic figure drawing is more anti-authoritarian in that context or more counter than shooting yourself.  Very contextual.


Boom 6, 2011, oil on canvas, courtesy of the artist and LA Louver Gallery

Right. I will always be a champion for the conceptual and the intellect.  I had to fight tooth and nail for it so I am not suspicious of education, of the life of the brain.  At the same time I had the luxury of growing up on the foothills of one of the most miraculous mountain ranges on earth.  There’s an assumption that we’ve all read Freud and Lacan and Barthes but there’s no assumption that we’ve ever dug a hole or baked bread or made love or had a baby or laid in a river, and those things are just as essential to the act of making art for me. Somehow they’ve been separated artificially into opposing forces in the art world.  All of the greatest thinkers and makers are able to use their brain and their body to produce things that are extraordinary.

There’s a kind of Cartesian split there: mind/body, as though you have to choose one.

Right, as if the mind doesn’t live here (holds up her hand.)

Right, and similarly, it’s like that split where you either are a figurative painter or an abstract painter and you have to choose one, rather than be a painter.

Or when you’re painting, you’re a painter.  We’ve gotten into this other weird problem with language where everything is art. Duchamp put the urinal into the gallery, so we have this ad nauseum conversation about “this is art,” “this is art,” “this is art,” put it in the gallery context, which is mind-numbingly boring. Because what I want to know is: is it meaningful?  I had a conversation in graduate school with someone who was contending that the greatest artists of our time are investment bankers.  If you call a mother an artist, you lose all specificity of language. You call a mother an artist because ‘mother’ has lost its value and you’re trying to make it seem important, but if you really were able to be specific with language, you could just say she’s a mother and it would be okay. When I’m making paintings, I’m a painter. When I’m making sculpture, I’m a sculptor. This may sound old-fashioned, but when you’re making architecture, you’re not making paintings. There are these divisions, there are differences. When you are a chef, you’re not an artist; they have different functions, they have different intentions, all of which are valid. The intention of making a painting is not to put a roof over someone’s head.  There are galleries and museums filled with that same gesture of saying “look, it’s art!” It’s so narcissistic, staring into the pool. Maybe because of how I came to art, it was an act of desperation: I want to make meaning out of my life, I want to deal with the fear of death, I want to deal with loss and grief and light, faith.

What would you say is the impact of your personal life on your work? How much of that is embedded in your work?

Part of the contemporary conversation has somehow evolved into this allergic reaction to autobiography, which I do not have. It’s always been the most successful way for me to make meaning out of things.

I had twins and lost one. The other was very sick for a long time, and when you’re faced with that kind of reality on top of the general stuff that happens to an artist- generally speaking, people don’t care what we do, you have to have a drive yourself to go to the studio. If you’re going because you think other people think it’s important or because of what it looks like eventually those streams just run dry. There’s not enough there to bring you to the studio. You have to find the core of what brings you to a dirty, smelly, usually cold, lonely place—usually studios are not very friendly in some ways and you cover yourself as a painter in toxic materials. So for me the thing that brings me are those big questions.

The painting on the left (call her green and the winters cannot fade her, 2013), that is the one that is most about grief. I wanted to make the air the most important thing in the painting.  I wanted to make the thing that wasn’t there the mechanism that held everything in this huddle. So I made it literal, I made it the thickest thing in the painting the air around the objects.  It seemed ridiculous after the death of a child, the thought of coming in and making a painting about some clever conceptual conceit or something interesting or smart. It was so primal for me: how do you move on after life comes through you and then you watch it leave? The idea of entertaining myself with wit…

I could be with my kids, my friends.  There is a desperateness when I come to the studio. I don’t think art is therapy necessarily, it’s documenting living. In therapy you’re looking for solutions. In art, you’re looking at it, you are simply being with the complexity of life and trying to leave someone with that tone, with that experience that you are trying to communicate to another person.


Call her green and the winters cannot fade her, 2012. oil on canvas, image courtesy of the artist and LA Louver

I think of these more deeply personal paintings as kind of state of being paintings—if I had to give it a label. Like (your) deep grief.

Yeah. I don’t think it is like therapy, but it does change you as you make it. It’s not solace exactly.  There’s something in the acknowledgement of whatever you’re feeling or want to communicate. There’s something about just being with it and realizing it. I also love poetry and there’s a line I wrote many years ago when I was really young.  I said “If you write a baby down does it save it from burning a lifetime?”  What I was grappling with was if you write it down, if you paint it, somehow even though we know eventually the whole planet is going to break into a bazillion pieces, it will not last, but somehow that devotional act of recording it and thinking about it as a human through the structure of our emotions and our reason. You combine all that and put it in a reliquary, you put it in an object and somehow just that act is meaningful.  It makes it different than just having lived the experience. Like writing your name on a tree in the forest. It’s ludicrous.

No, I don’t think it is.  It’s like that Lacan quote about “a symbol written in the sands of the flesh.”  Like the thick black paint- the absence which is a presence.

There is no illusion I have that I’m inventing anything.  I’m returning to something that exists for all of us, so for me, things like death, things like light, because they have happened always does not make them rote or irrelevant. We each have to face death. We don’t get out of that.  Nobody gets a free pass.  Does that make it not meaningful, like there’s nothing new?  The idea of being avant garde or new—Great poetry uses the same set of words, it simply reconfigures them into a way that allows us to be present again with the words.  I think that about painting often.  People do wonderfully inventive things with form, but there is sort of a finite system that we work within, and I don’t find that to be a downfall.

I think what you’re doing is taking your particular way of working and applying it to a universal experience, like grief or loss. It’s your experience of grief and loss and presenting it in that form. Somebody else might write a poem.

Or they may have made an all white painting. The interesting thing was I had never had to deal with this particular life experience and it mattered when it came in my life and in what form. There’s an endless number of configurations of those experiences. The act of graphing that, communicating that to another person.  Art gives us an opportunity not only to make things, but to make connections with other people. Art is another tool to make our way.

You mentioned that you have written poetry.  I have noticed a number of your titles struck me as being like little poems.

I love to write.  I think if I had more time I would love to study poetry more seriously. I’m jealous of two other kinds of people: poets and musicians.  And I often am struck by really amazing poems, because they do something so different from art—the world getting bigger.  The world we live in- of art and painting—is already so huge. And then you think of music, and philosophy, all this treasure trove of human experience.  That’s why calling it all “art” is a disservice.  I do not understand what investment bankers do, I would not call myself a musician, to call it all art is to not understand.

These titles are song lyrics, sometimes I will do that.  Other times, I’m interested in mixing up the cultural pedigree.  One of my largest, most macho works- a huge tree, steel and fiberglass- called “Do you really want to hurt me?” after the Culture Club song.  I had an assistant at the time say “You can’t call it that! It’s so stupid and dismissive” but for me there are crossovers—I don’t think you have to choose the brain or the body, I don’t think you have to choose the high or the low. I’m not interested in painting all about pop, or the history of pop music. At the same time I want to take from it what I want. I think that’s partially due to my upbringing- I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music but I was taken to the symphony every Friday night. Then when I started to rebel, I went straight to punk rock. In my environment, very few people understood; I was an outsider as a punk kid.  At the same time, it was already over in L.A. Contextually, in the world I was behind, but in my immediate environment I was ahead.  The idea of being ahead or behind disappeared for me and I think then you choose things that are just of value.  So that song, or that phrase “do you really want to hurt me?” by itself is meaningful. I can read a dense academic text but that doesn’t keep me from finding inspiration in an episode of Girls.

Well, that’s a great show!


Stand and Deliver, 2011, oil on canvas

I am interested in the sometimes elaborate staging of your paintings. How does that come about?

This is for a series called the Potato Eaters, an homage to the van Gogh painting of the potato eaters. Also my mom and dad come from a tiny town in southern Idaho called Rupert and their families were potato farmers. My dad is an engineer and his first big invention was a potato sorter.  Van Gogh’s painting was this switch in gaze from the rich and beautiful, well-groomed and well-educated to the people who are growing the food. I wanted to switch – there are rules in the contemporary world if you want to play by them.  One of the rules you can break is to do something super-autobiographical without the deflection of irony or Meta this or that.  How do you bring interest to this very direct and pedestrian history?  So I come up with the idea and I start to put stuff together, there’s a lot of family photographs, and things I’m thinking about in terms of art history. I make these collages, I put them in the computer, put funny phrases on them, and do a very bad sketch. There’s the idea for this painting- thinking about how my mother always complained about the snow, how you had these beautiful pastoral visions with some painters like Monet and then there’s Breugel who seemed to know something more sinister about the cold. I was thinking about snow and cold and the Odalisque and the stretched figure. As a woman painter, there’s the history of it, which I love but also to see it as a participant. Then I came across these Araki bondage images and I thought they were stunning and frightening. Somehow I compounded all those ideas. I was thinking about Christmas. I go overboard, I make everything a project, and then the day after I want to burn the tree to the fucking ground, I’m so done with it.  I’ve wasted a month being enslaved to this weird domestic tradition. So I translated that into this idea of mother. I am so split: I love having a family, a husband, a home, a garden. All those things I do.  And yet, it’s beautiful bondage.  Your movements, your identity are restricted. It’s like being bound with Christmas lights; but she’s not being strangled by them.  Some people choose bondage.  Then I do photography, then I photoshop it. Sometimes I do studies, but not so much anymore.  My paintings used to be more realistic, not just in the way they were painted but also in the kind of reality I wanted to make.  Now, they are more distorted and symbolic than physical reality.  It often looks at first glance like it could happen but it just feels off. And it is off.

So that also answers the question: do you start with a concept or does the idea come later? It’s fairly methodical.  You really have a system.

I like to work that way. I’m pretty A-type; I like to have a plan.

I’m so opposite, this is really inspiring!

If things are chaotic in the studio, if I feel distracted by anything- it’s so melodramatic but painting takes great courage, making art takes courage and you have to be in a safe place to go there.  When everything feels peripherally okay, you can be amazingly brave.

It feels to me like you are getting to that question: any advice for artists?

Always have a studio, always, at the expense of anything.  And if there’s something you want to make but you feel you shouldn’t make, that’s the thing you should do. This is for you.  If you’re making something you think you should make or think will get you somewhere… Make the thing you desperately need to make. And if you make any money from your art, you have to put the money right back into the work.


Christmas lights, studio shot, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and LA Louver

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Rebecca Cambell and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J. (2014). “A Conversation with Rebecca Campbell,” Figure/Ground. May 1st.
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