Campbell + Campbell, Recent Paintings, an outdoor exhibition of landscape paintings by Nancy Campbell and Jon Campbell at the Arts Society of Kingston, is a feast for the eyes. While many of the canvases depict scenes in and around Saugerties and the countryside around Berlin, where Jon has lived for the past decade, their emphasis on colour, simplified forms and broad brushwork is primarily a homage to the art of painting. The work adheres to Maurice Denis’ famous dictum that a painting is “essentially a flat surface covered with colors in a specific order”. Compositional elements draw the eye to a focal point and convey a sense of space and movement; In Jon’s work, much of the canvas is typically occupied by a foreshortened field, pushing the horizon line, with its cluster of trees and buildings, close to the top of the canvas, incidentally creating a bridge between the viewer’s space and the distant backgrounds create an exciting tension between large and small forms. The work of the two artists has an immediacy that makes you want to pick up a brush.
While each artist can be easily identified by the style of his or her work, there is clearly a kinship – a literal one, in fact: Saugerties resident Nancy, long known in the community for her leadership at the Woodstock School of Art and as cultural mover and shaker, is Jon’s mother. It’s fun to compare the two works. Jon’s penchant for bright, warm colors and spontaneous brushwork that simplifies and abstracts the image is reminiscent of the god of contemporary perception painters, Fairfield Porter. His paintings convey a tangible sense of light, atmosphere and space, also thanks to his precision with tones (light and dark). The only large painting in the exhibition by Jon depicts a country road in the snow with extreme simplicity and economy, yet its carefully calibrated tones of gray and brown convey the particular light and atmosphere of a cold, overcast day.
Nancy’s work is smaller, more intimate, and more realistic in style, nor is she sluggish when it comes to composition, color, and especially her capture of the light. Some of her strongest works show patterns of blue shadows on snow: in another, reflected light in the ice-covered trees literally sparkles against the deep blue of the sky and the pattern of pale blue-grey tree shadows radiating from the bottom edge of the snow paper draws the viewer into the space . She is also an expert in conveying lamplight in wintry indoor scenes. Many of her paintings in the exhibition were executed in gouache, a medium whose directness and rich, matte tones convey a freshness.
“I love the outdoors,” she said, noting that she sometimes uses photographic references as well. “I’ve been painting landscapes for about 40 years and I’m just learning how to keep things outside. When Jon was here in June we had the opportunity to paint together for the first time. It was fun. He paints really fast and he was an inspiration to me because he tells me how to simplify.”
She added that she never tires of painting scenes in Saugerties, which “is a real no-frills town.” Her prints, especially of winter scenes, are best sellers.
Nancy did not take art classes until her early twenties (she was already married and divorced) and attended SUNY Ulster. After marrying now husband Mike and having three boys (Jon is the middle son), art was put on the back burner, although whenever she could find time she painted watercolors and took classes with StaatsFasoldt at the Woodstock School of Art. In 1992 the family moved to Germany (Mike, an IBMer, was transferred there by the company). Over the next four years of the family’s stay in Europe, Nancy visited galleries and museums and was particularly impressed by an exhibition of the Nabis in Paris, which inspired her to take up oil painting.
After the family returned to Saugerties, Nancy and fellow painter Angela Gaffney-Smith rented a studio in the village and began showing art at what was known as the Half Moon Art Studio. She then rented a larger studio/gallery on Market Street and opened a co-op, was elected to the Saugerties Town Board and, at the end of her four-year tenure, re-entered the arts scene to initiate the Saugerties Artists Tour. After her kids left for college, she turned an upstairs bedroom into a studio, and when that outgrew it, she built an annex to the house.
In late 2009, Nancy approached the Director of the WSA to help out part-time and was offered the position of Director/President. She then served as the school’s first executive director for five years and has since served on the board, currently as vice president. As principal, Nancy significantly expanded the school’s enrollment to 500 students and received her first NYSCA scholarship, as well as other significant funding. After learning that Saugerties High School had lost funding for its arts program, she worked with Kate McGloughlin, then-President of the school, to secure a grant from the Thompson Family Foundation to fund scholarships for high school and college students to obtain. The school also allowed high school students to receive Regents credits for their classes, offered a portfolio building class and worked with SUNY Ulster to offer credit classes.
In 2012, after connecting with relatives on her Italian grandfather’s side in Italy, Nancy began offering an annual painting workshop in her ancestral village. “We get enough people to fit in a van,” she said, noting that the painters can also participate in village life, such as attending a baptism. She will also be traveling to Ireland for an artist residency next March.
Jon credits his color sense from watching his mother paint as a young child, and also from the Van Gogh and Gauguin posters that hung around the house. “As a young child, visiting galleries and museums, I was drawn to Fauvism and Post-Impressionism, especially Matisse,” he told this reporter in a phone interview he conducted in June while he was in Saugerties.
Born in 1982, he took private art classes in middle school and began studying with Eric Angeloch at the WSA in 1998, an institution that was crucial to Jon’s development as an artist: “At one point I had a scholarship and went on to Woodstock School of Art throughout high school,” Jon said. After graduating in 2001, he moved to New York City and attended the School of Visual Arts before dropping out of his sophomore year and returning to Saugerties after witnessing and being traumatized by 9/11. Working in WSA maintenance and studying painting with then-WSA teacher John Bradford was a turning point: “He kind of broke me open,” Jon recalls. “I was careful and valuable and focused on rendering accurately by applying the paint to a canvas. In one of John’s first classes, he had a model in the middle of the studio and I rendered [the model] use[expensive] Old Dutch paint. He squeezed out half a tube of Cadium Yellow and smeared it on my canvas. I had a panic attack, but in that moment he taught me that you can really bet on the color. You can be very physical. He was the first teacher to finish painting in one go, which also suited my natural sensibilities.”
Jon earned a BFA from SUNY-Purchase in 2006 and spent the summer studying with Bradford at WSA. “Most of my friends went to New York City [after graduating], but I didn’t want to repeat that story,” he said. “There was a couple who bought a lot of my work throughout my art studies, and I went to Berlin with that money.”
Jon came to Berlin in May 2007. After three months, he exchanged his tourist visa for a student visa. “I signed up for a German course and got a one-year visa, then I applied for an artist visa,” a process in which he presented invoices from his painting sales and freelance work to authorities. Eventually he got a work permit and worked in a nightclub bar for ten years before finally settling in Germany last December.
He lost his job in March 2020 due to the pandemic and went on welfare as an official full-time artist, which “is really new to me, although many artists in Germany are on welfare. Instead of trying to get me a job [the caseworkers] would like me to focus on art and music and recommend a business education” that the government will pay for. His apartment in Berlin “is super tiny, super cheap and also doubles as my music studio. I have a painting studio 10 minutes away which is small but has good light. Berlin is definitely cheaper than most cities, although rents have risen sharply over the last 10 years,” he said.
Jon also makes music – something he considered a hobby, although he’d been playing guitar and writing songs since he was young, until 2015 when he started dating a semi-famous musician who encouraged him. Jon then released two LPs, wrote and arranged all the songs and hired session musicians. He now has a Berlin-based distribution company, although he makes most of the money he makes from his music from touring and merchandising.
While “dealing with total abstraction,” he prefers to paint landscapes and outdoor portraits. “I have a cart that I attach to my bike, throw in my easel and gear, and go to parks,” he said, noting that there are many in Berlin. “Last year I rode eight to nine miles [to paint]. Several of these paintings are in the ASK exhibition and were all done in three to five hours alla prima.”
Being based in Germany hasn’t precluded exhibiting his work in the States, including a solo show at the James Cox Gallery in Woodstock, which led to an association with a gallery on the Lower East Side (the owner now owns the gallery closed but has continued to show Jon’s work at art fairs). Jon is opposed to the fact that art is mostly reserved for the wealthy and tries to keep his prices affordable. In the last year he has sold a lot of work on Instagram and has started selling prints of some of his paintings to make the work even more accessible.
Campbell + Campbell runs through August 27 at ASK, 97 Broadway. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 1pm to 6pm. For more information, see Askforarts.org.