Steven Campbell was a painter of complex and often witty works that form a key link between the work of the preceding generation of artists in Scotland and what followed in the 1990s. Campbell insisted that his art had its roots in 1970s British conceptual art such as the performance art of artists like Bruce McLean and Gilbert & George. Indeed, his paintings retain many of the features of the performances that he made as a student at The Glasgow School of Art: exaggerated gestures, a strong narrative structure and the use of historical events and characters (often from the 1920s and 1930s) to create a claustrophobic, fictional world of bizarre happenings.
In Campbell’s paintings from the 1980s, solidly built, tweed-clad young men – scientists, philosophers, architects and artists – are engaged in a quest to find meaning and order in an Alice-in-Wonderland universe. In keeping with the post-modern mood of the times, where knowledge was seen as dependent on historical circumstances and hence changeable, the world that Campbell depicted made no rational sense, although it had a perverse logic, similar to that found in the surrealist paintings of René Magritte (1898–1967).
In his 1990 exhibition On Form and Fiction, at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre, Campbell took a compendium of artistic forms and styles and subjected them to absurd fictional plots. He created a museum-like setting, complete with benches borrowed from Kelvingrove Art Gallery and dramatic lighting. The walls were covered with a grid of sepia-ink drawings, framing twelve large acrylic paintings. In addition there was a tape recorder playing amongst other things the infamous 1969 love song by Serge Gainsbourg with Jane Birkin, Je t’aime … moi non plus, together with some words spoken by the artist. The show was a carefully staged installation, one might almost say the backdrop for a performance, which played with ideas in a sophisticated manner and, as such, had a big impact on a younger generation of artists in Scotland. In the 1990s and 2000s Campbell’s art became darker and less playful in mood, as it reflected the horrors of some of the world’s current conflicts.