The artistic career of Salt Lake City native Rebecca Campbell has certainly exploded in the 15 years since she left for graduate studies at UCLA, where she stayed to work and teach. Her exhibit Boom, opening at CUAC, features dramatic, provocative paintings of nuclear bomb explosions, as well as portraits that play on feminist themes, with domestic scenes that hint at discord.
For Campbell, painting is primarily a physical experience. "Viscerality has always played a major role in my work in the form of brushwork, materiality and subject," Campbell says. "Things like digging holes, leaking tears and baking bread have been fundamental sources in my work."
Even when her artistic odyssey was just beginning with early shows in Utah, her work stood out because of her confident, expressionistic brushstrokes, assertive compositions and compelling, sometimes controversial subjects. Her send-off from Salt Lake City 15 years ago was a bit understated, she recalls, but the local art scene at the time was more "underground," she says.
Her gestured paintings and works of concisely rendered realism made waves in California, however, and her career was given a boost in graduate school when she was included in an exhibition at the renowned Gagosian Gallery with notable artists Chris Burden and Ed Ruscha. Afterward, she was offered representation with L.A. Louver Gallery, and she has shown at Ameringer McEnery Yohe in New York, and was featured in the art fairs Art Basel and ARCO Madrid.
"It's interesting to know that I can be as controversial in Los Angeles for making intentionally nostalgic figurative oil paintings involving emotional domestic narratives ... as I can in SLC directing performance art inspired by the theoretical writing of Luce Irigaray and the anonymity of Internet pornography," she says.
Why atomic bombs in her paintings over the past three years? She has written in an essay that her work interests are in extreme contrasts: "I seek the radiant, the abject, deliverance and damage in concert ... I try to understand the atomic blast through heat, light, obliteration, full spectrum doom. ... My paintings are a manifesto for rapture in spite [of] or even in debt to the abyss."
Campbell believes that the violent images convey something about what she calls her "fractured experience of life." "They are at once terrifying and exquisite; they are candy-coated death," she says. "The paintings in this show in general were inspired by the phenomena that life can hold opposites, and in fact opposites often need each other for their very definition. I also just love the word 'boom.' It is simple and complex. It is an explosion, a flirtatious proclamation, a microphone, a hip swing, an idea, machismo incarnate."
CUAC's director and curator, Adam Bateman, is enthusiastic about showing Campbell's work here again. "She is one of the most successful painters/artists at a national level ... to ever come out of Utah," Bateman says. "I also think her subject matter, being inspired in large part by her connection to Utah, is highly appropriate for our audience. It needs to be seen here. I think she is highly successful in exploring ideas that, while universal, are acute in Utah—she is both exploring and representing something true to this place."
Campbell acknowledges and embraces her connection with the state. "All of my work is influenced by my relationship with Utah," Campbell says. "The mountains, my family, the politics, the church, the lovers, being a woman in arguably the most openly patriarchal community in the U.S., the punk scene, the lake, Kennecott, the Painted Word, the Arts Festival, the university, the smell of rain on hot asphalt. I constantly rerun all of it like a montage as I am making work."
Campbell is preparing for several shows next year, and just finished a set of works titled "The Potato Eaters"—recalling the Van Gogh series of the same name, and based on members of her family growing up potato-farming in Rupert, Idaho—to be featured in the critical journal Diacritics at Cornell.
"After completing such a large and melancholy project, I sense a bit of mischief brewing," Cambpell says. Recalling her earlier experimentation with pornography as subject matter, she jokes, "Maybe I'll dig out those vintage Hustlers again and see how they look 15 years later."