Westie street signs and tea towels reign in Jon Campbell’s new commission for the 2010 Melbourne Art Fair, writes Din Heagney…
Jon Campbell is southside when I come to chat with him. It’s odd not being in Footscray as his work is usually quite happily entrenched in the inner western suburbs of Melbourne. We go into Campbell’s temporary studio – a small dining room in his mother in law’s charming house in Balaclava. I feel like I’m on another planet. He explains that his family is temporarily staying here while their own place is fixed.
A stack of Campbell’s tea-towel works are draped over an upholstered dining chair. On a nearby side table, a well-used overhead projector sits jumbled with word sketches and occasional tablecloths. As we chat and look at some of his versions of the word ‘poppycock’ in pencil on paper, a distracting image of Mrs Jessop from the Sullivans pops into my head. I expect her to walk in any minute to complain about the juxtaposition.
Campbell is an artist, musician and teacher known for his DIY suburban style that celebrates the Westie culture. His masculine but colourful pop paintings have appeared in a string of shows recently, such as last year’s excellent Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize at the Bendigo Art Gallery. The last two decades are about to be captured down in an upcoming book of his life’s work to be published by Uplands.
Image courtesy: Uplands
Campbell emigrated with his family from Northern Ireland in the 1960s to settle in Altona when he was still a kid, so I can’t help but ask him about the other famous ten pound pom who also arrived as an emigrant from the UK as a child. He laughs and says he knows the newly appointed PM from lining up for sausage sizzles at local fundraisers in their shared neighborhood of Altona.
His Yeah Yeah Yeah billboard was a very popular piece on the side of a road in Altona and puts a nodding edge to any political talk. The Hobson Bay Council’s commissioned it as a follow up to the YEAH flag back in 2005. A Constructed World even started a petition for that work to become the new Australian flag, releasing a signatory statement that read:
People are disillusioned with the way Australian culture and history is being represented. A new flag will create a new way of thinking about our future. We the undersigned demand that the YEAH flag be made the Australian national flag and call on the government to make provision with respect to all existing flags.
It was all done with a cheeky sincerity. Signatories like Michael Brennan, the founder of Trocadero in Footscray, scored points by adding ‘because it would be unAustralian not to’ – a wink to the flag burning billboard work by Azlan McLennan that was seized by police in Footscray amongst the churning rhetoric of the government at the time. Still, that was 2006. It feels like such a long time ago, and so much apparently hasn’t changed.
Since then, Campbell has attracted younger contemporaries like Tom Polo and Thérèse Derrick who have exhibited works dedicated to him. But it’s Campbell’s down-to-earth friendliness and his enthusiasm for potty onomatopoeia that are just some of the reasons he’s so popular. His eyes light up as he repeats the stacks of phrases surrounding him, while being careful not to cut into his mother-in-law’s good dining table.
It is a little incongruous, considering The Melbourne Art Foundation’s commission for the upcoming Art Fair is only weeks away from opening, and feels as far from this room as you could get. ‘It’s still about the everyday,’ Campbell explains, ‘I love the idea of domestic works in houses, that people can buy a tea-towel made by an artist and either use it or hang it on their wall. This whole work is an increased scale and it’s the first time I’ve worked with light boxes in a big way.’
The Stacks on commission will run from the north entrance of Royal Exhibition Building right through the centre to the Great Hall. It sounds odd: Victorian exhibitionism meets Westie sloganism perhaps? Rough phrases and droll signs splayed across 12 banners, like tea towels on steroids, forming something like a street scape into the central part of the Fair. They will lead visitors toward the central 3×4 stacks of shop-ish light boxes illuminating phrases from handmade street signs, and overheard comments that beg remembering: Early Morning Doof Doof. Cheap Perfume & Fried Dim Sims. It’s a World Full of Lying Bastards. Now I can relate to that. This is one of the things that make Campbell’s work so appealing: it’s pop meets folk, served at a nice enough temperature so that everyone can enjoy it.
Jon Campbell’s Artist Commission
Melbourne Art Fair
Royal Exhibition Building
4 – 8 August 2010