I don’t know about you, but I love a painting that simply makes me smile. I’m always enamoured by artwork that seems somehow ‘friendly’, that appears open rather than closed, democratic rather than exclusive. For me, the work of Melbourne artist Jon Campbell is a bit like that.
With a career that spans almost 30 years, Jon Campbell is a well respected and highly collectible Australian artist, but also, his work is happily accessible. Young or old, art aficionado or first time gallery goer, there is something for everyone here. Always bolstered by a healthy dose of humour, the work is sometimes a little deprecating, but never pessimistic, and always endearing at heart.
I spotted one of Jon Campbell’s impressive and, at first glance, abstract canvases at the Melbourne Art Fair last month, and it took a few seconds before the I read it properly. For the past 20 years Jon’s work has been predominantly text based. His current paintings invariably encourage the response of reading ‘out loud’ the laconic Aussie catchphrases and cheeky swear words hidden in plain sight, amongst seemingly abstract geometric shapes. With cheerful expressiveness, these paintings take a split second to decipher, but quickly win the viewer’s affection, like a mischievous joke shared between friends.
Jon Campbell was born in 1961 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Three years later, his family moved to Melbourne. I’m not sure if perhaps the early feeling of being a bit of an ‘outsider’ in his new surroundings may have encouraged his outlook in adult life, but somehow, there is a sense of astute observation about Australian suburban culture in Jon’s work. His practice, which over the years has incorporated paintings, teatowels, flags, billboards and neon signs, is strongly influenced by a nostalgic sense of Australian iconography, and a childhood spent growing up in suburban Altona in Melbourne’s West. Jon is inspired by everyday language and familiar conversational expressions, turning the most mundane remarks into bold statements enhanced by colour, scale and composition. (In recent years, exhibition titles have included ‘Stacks on’, ‘Dunno’ and ‘Up Sh*t Creek’!)
As he explains below, Jon is ‘mostly interested’ in the simple things around him – everyday life, local language, and rock ’n roll (Jon is also a musician). ‘I try to represent the overlooked and undervalued’ he explains below. ‘It’s a questioning and celebration of who we are… with a lo-fi aesthetic’.
Jon Campbell is represented by Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney and Station Gallery in Melbourne. His work will be included in the end of year group show at Darren Knight Gallery, opening 29th November 2014.
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming an artist, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?
I was born in Belfast and migrated to Australia with my family in 1964. I grew up in Altona, in Melbourne’s west. I guess I was mainly interested in sport and art/design at high school. I enrolled at Footscray Technical College in 1979 to do a more practical orientated art and design course, and it was here I made my first figure drawings and oil paintings and found out about this thing called Art School! This led to a BA (Painting) at RMIT and then a Graduate Diploma at the VCA in the mid ’80s.
I think my art and politics are influenced by where I grew up. I’ve always been mostly interested in things around me, the local Australiana language and rock n roll. I try to represent the overlooked and undervalued. It’s a questioning and celebration of who we are, constructed with a lo-fi aesthetic.
How would you describe your work?
My art has been mainly text based for the last 20 years. It’s an ongoing exploration of the visual potential of words, through the use of vernacular language and popular culture. In my recent paintings, I’ve been transforming snippets of conversation, argument and dialogue, using abstraction and graphic design to both confuse the original function of the words and phrases, and elevate them to a pictorial object. The negative spaces around the letters become positive. The viewer becomes part of the work as they unravel the text and say the phrase.
Recently at the Spring 1883 art fair at the Windsor Hotel where I had some paintings on show with Darren Knight Gallery, some viewers commented that it was a surprise to see me painting abstract pictures, they obviously weren’t looking hard enough!
Words and phrases are heavily emphasised and guide much of the composition of your work, but this wasn’t always the case. When did you start including text throughout your work and what inspires or prompts the text you choose to paint?
I made figurative paintings at the start, throughout the ’80s, and started the text paintings in the early to mid ’90s. It was a combination of text and figurative images for a while. The text created a broader reading of the work, and opened up further compositional options. This in turn allowed the subject to come from a wider range of sources and influences.
Can you give us a little insight into your process? What materials do you use? Is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively? Do you work on multiple canvases at one time?
Once I have gathered various words, notes and phrases, these are then sorted, and when I decide on a particular word to develop it goes through a range of hand drawn designs. A final composition is selected, and this is then transferred onto acetate and projected via overhead projector onto the canvas or board. Loose colour schemes are worked out, but generally the colour choices are intuitive and happen once the painting is underway. I generally have several paintings on the go at the same time. House paint is my preferred medium, particularly gloss enamel. The output can include a range of different formats, including paintings, teatowels, flags, billboards, songs and neon signs.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Rise around 7am, breakfast, make lunches, read the paper, check insta, put on a load of washing, head into the studio for the morning, put the washing out, lunch, check insta, check emails and other admin, back to the studio for the afternoon, bring the washing in, dinner with my wife and daughters, ABC news, check emails, a little more studio, a little TV, bed. Except for Wednesday and Thurday when I teach in the Painting department at the VCA.
Can you list for us any favourite resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
I’m right into Instagram at the moment. Instagram faves are the genius of Matt Griffin and Jennifer Higgie. Both are inspirational and give me something original to look at and think about.
I don’t do any other social media. Other than that it’s a little bit old school, I spend time looking through my art books, taking photos of street signage and listening to my records.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
Matt Hinkley, a Melbourne artist who makes intriguing small sculptures, the smallest works in town, where at one of his exhibitions I was offered a magnifying glass to look at the work. Matt exhibits with Sutton Gallery in Melbourne.
Warren Taylor, a Melbourne graphic designer. He has a great understanding of design history, art, music and materials. We are making a new artists book together to be launched at the end of the year and we have a shared interest in text.
Tully Moore, a Melbourne artist with an awesome painting technique, great sense of humour and refreshing take on global politics. Tully exhibits with John Buckley Gallery and is currently in residence at Gertrude Contemporary.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
Winning the $100,000 Basil Sellers prize in 2010 was definitely a highlight.
What would be your dream project?
I don’t really think about a dream projects., but I would like to have big survey show where I could look at most of my work together in the one venue. To see exactly what has been going on for the past 30 years.
What are you looking forward to?
Travelling to New York next January to take up my Australia Council residency at the Greene St Studio, and exhibiting in a group show at Franklin Street Works in Stamford Connecticut.
Launching my artist book ‘Lettering ‘ designed by Warren Taylor, and releasing my first solo 12inch LP that I am currently recording with artist/musician/teacher Andrew Bare at his home studio, aka his loungeroom.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
At the moment I am really into Sydney Road. I live in Coburg and catch the number 19 tram through Brunswick and Coburg. The mix of culture and activity along this strip really represents contemporary Melbourne and gives me something new to look at every day. You can pretty much get everything and anything you want on Sydney Road.
Where do you shop for the tools of your trade?
Viponds Paints in Coburg is No.1 for paint. I get my stretchers and canvas from Chapman and Bailey in Abbotsford. Other suppliers are Deans Art, in Brunswick, Savers, and opp shops generally.
Where and what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
Thom Phat in Brunswick. I went with my wife for her birthday. Very fresh and flavoursome and the half price cocktails went down okay as well!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Usually at home, reading the paper, watching Rage, domestic chores. Sometimes I will accompany my wife to the Coburg farmers market.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
The falafels at Half Moon café in the Coburg Mall. Some would say best in Australia!