David Campbell is starting his sixth decade of painting the city of Somerville. He’s a house painter – and a streets painter, and a factory-and-junkyard painter, a chain-link fence painter, a roofs and roads and trestles painter. And above all of these things, he paints skies: strong, pigeon-gray – sometimes smoke-spewed – tumultuous cloudy skies, powerful enough to speed you along on your walk, big enough to remind you that all this stuff down here is really pretty small in the scheme of things.
The Somerville Museum has gathered nearly two dozen of Campbell’s realist paintings for a special retrospective entitled “The Art of Observation,” curated by local printmaker and Brickbottom Gallery coordinator Debra Olin. Campbell is already well-known in art circles – much more than just a “hometown hero” – with works featured at the Smithsonian, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Boston Athenaeum and included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the years he has taught at Mass College of Art, the MFA, and the Maine College of Art. In many ways, given this outside recognition, the show serves as a homecoming to re-introduce this prominent artist to the city he paints so much. (In 2014, after a sojourn in Maine, Campbell moved back to his studio in Brickbottom.)
Many of Campbell’s works capture the city under a pale cold light, not a “bleak-midwinter,” but that classic New England “crisp,” when the heavy sun works all day to remain just barely above the horizon. It’s just the right environment for the cultivation of an urban melancholy, as the bitter and the beauty, the calm and the clutter, come together and blend. Time-hardened New England expressions like “a cold snap” come to mind, as you turn up your collar, wondering if the sun will manage to burn through the clouds today. Campbell’s dedication to his subject gains all the more respect when we remember that he is typically a “plein air” painter, carrying his studio out into the world: the artist exposed to the very elements he is painting. (The show does include some examples of seasonal change, showcasing the full range of Campbell’s palette, including a series revisiting the same spots throughout the course of a year.)
In addition to setting the mood, there’s a clever trick at work in these gray skies: despite being fascinating to contemplate for a moment or an afternoon, all that gray eventually leads our attention back earthward, to the small flashes of color and character – and the community they represent – found at street-level. Nearly ever painting features these diverse elements: laundry flapping in the wind; trash this didn’t quite make it into the dumpster; the mismatched color of a DIY bumper-repair on a vintage Cadillac Brougham.
These signs of wear and tear – on the pavement, the cars, the homes – bear witness to the daily human patterns of everyday use at work; they are the real clues to notice: yes, there’s sky, buildings, street – but this is a city of people. (A few of the paintings also include actual little figures as as well, always from a distance, plodding or playing, often more implied than rendered, reminiscent of the pathos-laden “matchstick men” populating L. S. Lowry’s paintings of an earlier gritty city.)
Of course, as any Bostonian knows, winter is not the only time of year we enjoy griping about: there’s also the construction season, which in recent years – especially for those of us living in the fertile Green Line Corridor Gentrification & Infrastructure Valley – seems to has expanded to fill all twelve months. Since Campbell paints what he sees in the city, the canvases serve as an exploded flip-book chronicle of change: an urban streetscape with as many cranes as pigeons.
The exhibition makes wise use of the museum’s small space – including a clever placement right under the arch of the grand staircase – and the overall setting benefits from the natural light peeking through the upper-floor arched windows, linking all these the painted skies with the real one just outside. At times the room is bit too tight to stand back and really take in an entire canvas, but this does provide the happy side-effect of encouraging you to lean in a bit and scrutinize the many details that make these paintings work.
Coinciding with the organization of the show, Campbell was named “Artist of the Month” by the Somerville Arts Council, and as part of the recognition he was interviewed by Charan Devereaux for an online feature on the group’s website. Asked about his return to the city and his plans for the years ahead, he replied, “For me, my work is continuing to paint the city.” The sixth word tells it all: like the city itself, the painter’s work is never done.
The Art of Observation is on view at The Somerville Museum with advance-purchase timed-tickets; check the website for the latest visiting hours and availability.