A wall-like painting of an ornate kitchen shelf envelops the entrance to the National Gallery of Australia’s latest exhibition.
In it, a number of household objects are celebrated with extraordinary precision: a leek leans against a blue-and-white ceramic vessel, black kitchen scissors protrude 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 Australian contemporary artist Cressida Campbell’s 2009 woodcut painting The Kitchen Shelf – lovingly recreated here by her husband, Warren Macris, who is a fine art and photographic printer and took over 100 photographs of the original for the mural Has .
The exhibition, which opens on Saturday, is a major retrospective of Campbell’s work, featuring more than 140 of her woodcuts and woodcut prints.
At 62, Campbell has been making art for more than 40 years, and in sales alone she is one of Australia’s most successful and sought-after artists (her commercial shows usually sell out, often before they open) – but this is the first time a retrospective of this magnitude has been held shown by a major Australian gallery.
It’s also the first time the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has programmed a living Australian artist for its blockbuster summer exhibition – a space normally reserved for well-known international artists (think: Picasso).
“[Campbell] is a very established artist and we believe she has brought something very unique to the cultural tapestry of Australian art,” NGA Director Nick Mitzevich told ABC Arts.
“She is at the peak of her powers and we want to celebrate that.”
Curated thematically across six rooms, the exhibition is autobiographical, featuring intimate domestic scenes, cityscapes and landscapes from the places Campbell lived, and even childhood drawings.
“It’s a bit like a documentary but in color,” the artist told ABC News.
Mitzevich says: “The exhibition slowly reveals itself to you and seduces you with the build up of colour, the nuances with which it models a shape or figure or shadow and how it captures beauty.
“For me, this exhibition is a journey of beauty.”
Campbell works from her backyard studio in Sydney (Warrang) and draws inspiration from her surroundings, including her garden and household items.
There is an unexpected beauty in the everydayness of the scenes and objects she depicts: kitchen scraps in a plastic ice cream container; Nasturtium cuttings cascading from a wine glass; a gray furry head (Campbell’s former cat Otto) hidden behind a banister.
The domesticity of her subjects is deeply intimate.
“[They’re things] People wouldn’t normally find interesting topics, but they actually look interesting to me,” says Campbell.
“So it’s a way of encouraging people to see things in new ways.”
Make the everyday extraordinary
Campbell’s creative process is highly unusual for a contemporary painter.
She then draws and etches scenes onto a block of plywood before applying several layers of watercolor paint with fine sable brushes. She then sprays the block with water and places paper over it, pressing and rolling the block by hand to create a mirror print.
There is a nod to this approach that draws on ukiyo-e – a Japanese style of woodcut that Campbell studied while living in Tokyo in the 1980s.
She also cites Australian painter and printmaker Margaret Preston as a major stylistic influence. Campbell was particularly taken with 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 color woodcut and one-off print, and produces approximately five to six works a year.
“I actually spend a lot of time retouching the print and hand-painting because there’s often quite a bit of editing to do with it,” she told her sister, actress Nell Campbell, earlier this year.
It is an arduous process to capture the mostly everyday objects and scenes. (Stacks of used tubes of paint and brushes on display as part of the exhibition attest to the work.)
But Campbell’s thoughtfulness and amazing attention to detail make the ordinary extraordinary.
dr Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, the NGA’s curator of Australian prints and drawings, says Campbell, who isn’t particularly comfortable in the spotlight, lets her work speak for itself.
“Your work finds its way into the world without any drumbeats having to be made.
“I think a lot of people will appreciate your work but not know who did it. And I think that’s the beauty of doing a show like this: people will start to know the name Cressida Campbell.”
Noordhuis-Fairfax worked with Campbell on the retrospective, which includes several artworks from the artist’s childhood. (Campbell has been drawing since she was six.)
“She’s an artist who just never stopped drawing,” says Noordhuis-Fairfax.
“They’re quite extraordinary drawings and you can see this real interest in the natural world and stuff [her] Attention to detail started very young.”
While Campbell isn’t a household name, Mitzevich hopes the exhibition will help change that.
“What really encourages me is that the work and its practice will certainly take a big step in recognition through this major exhibition,” he says.
“We hope hundreds of thousands of Australians will have the opportunity to see it [Campbell’s] work and appreciate how unique their practice is.”
The NGA has acquired one new work, Bedroom Nocturne (2022), from the exhibition, bringing the total number of Campbell’s works in the gallery to five.
Of Australia’s major galleries, the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) has collected nine of Campbell’s work (including four by Olley, an early supporter 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 currently have no work by Campbell in their permanent collections.
Now, says Mitzevich, she is one of Australia’s most privately collected artists.
The exhibition features the highest number of private loans 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 was programmed in the NGA’s 40th year. (Coincidentally, she attended the opening of the NGA in October 1982 as artist Martin Sharp’s Plus-One.)
Her exhibition is one of 18 previously announced projects commissioned as part of the NGA’s Know My Name gender equality initiative, which was launched in response to findings that only a quarter of the gallery’s Australian collection and a third of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection is by women artists.
Mitzevich says of “Know My Name”: “It’s not about being ‘bright’ or politically correct. It’s about acknowledging that in our culture, the playing fields are unequal for different things… and it’s important to elevate the roles that haven’t been given a fair gang.
“And we don’t apologize for that,” adds Mitzevich.
The exhibition is not only a significant 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 about the terrifying moment afterwards, when she realized she might never be able to paint again.
These surgeries restored Campbell’s use of her right arm and leg, which in turn allowed her to complete the new work featured in the NGA exhibit.
Campbell told ABC News that the opportunity to have a poll show at NGA was an “amazing compliment.”
“I couldn’t be more honored. It’s incredible.”
Cressida Campbell runs at the National Gallery of Australia until February 19, 2023.