This groundbreaking virtual exhibition explores the work of the Glaswegian artist Steven Campbell (1953-2007) and his interface with fashion and Scottish textiles. It draws upon existing technologies and the aesthetic conventions of in-person exhibitions to create something that is insightful and – perhaps surprisingly – intimate.
Steven Campbell is a towering figure in Scottish art history. Central to the renaissance of the country’s art scene in the early 1980s, in recent years art historians have critically reappraised the artist’s densely populated, somewhat surreal, figurative canvases which often depict squat, tweed clad, males – philosophers, artists, writers, architects and dreamers – navigating this paradoxical world in search of new meanings. By reframing Campbell’s work in relation to designs by Comme des Garçons, Archie Brennan and Robert Stewart’s textile arts, photographs by Lord Snowdon, as well as their own biographies, fashion and textile preoccupations, the exhibition curators Beca Lipscombe and Mairi MacKenzie have constructed a compelling narrative and original intervention.
Campbell was fiercely proud of his roots. Scottishness streams through his work, as does the narrative of going away and returning to his homeland. This is something Lipscombe, a fashion designer, print maker and one half of Atelier E.B., and MacKenzie, Research Fellow in Fashion History at Glasgow School of Art - both Scots - can relate to. They state that, ‘The title Dressing Above Your Station refers to the role that clothes play in our dreams, desires and future selves (that old adage of dressing for the life you want and not the life you have). It is something that resonates with both of us and that we imagine will ring a bell with many viewers of the exhibition.' The curators define this as ‘vernacular panache’.
Before enrolling at Glasgow School of Art, Campbell had worked in the local steel works for seven years. Naturally gifted, he graduated with a Fulbright Scholarship which funded his move to New York in 1982, where he and his wife Carol soon became embedded in the city’s vibrant art scene. In 1983, Campbell staged his first solo exhibition at the Barbara Toll Gallery. It was here that Dianne Benson, who had just opened the groundbreaking, cavernous concrete Comme des Garçons store on Wooster Street, saw his work. Benson was also an arts patron and regularly collaborated with local artists, notably Cindy Sherman for her 1983 fashion series wearing Comme des Garçons.
The exhibition orbits around Benson's offer of a $10,000 credit voucher for Comme des Garçons clothes in exchange for one of Campbell’s paintings (no one can remember the title). Within the show, the clothes the couple chose are presented on a dress rail, as they were merchandised – not on a mannequin on a plinth as per a museum gallery. Steven and Carol genuinely admired Rei Kawakubo’s radical designs, but they were not overawed by the cult of Comme. It is certainly refreshing to see the type of edgy fashions we are accustomed to viewing in particular sorts of magazines, museums and metropolitan fashion centres transposed to rural Scotland, where the couple returned to in 1986 to raise their three young children.
Dressing Above Your Station is experienced within a 1:1 scale digital model of Tramway’s (one of Scotland’s leading international art and performance spaces) largest exhibition space, Tramway 2. The project was developed in partnership with the digital media studio ISODESIGN and artist Rob Kennedy. One of the main criticisms levelled at the online experience is that it never satisfactorily captures the aura of the ‘real’ thing. However, here we have the opportunity to engage with the paintings, clothes and other objects in a manner that visitors to gallery spaces are not always afforded. The ultra-high resolution rendering of paintings and photographs provides an experience which facilitates dramatic shifts in scale and detail and an opportunity to view at 360 degrees with the same exacting detail.
Examples of Steven’s singular style are manifest throughout the show, within his paintings and own dressed appearance. MacKenzie states that, 'Steven was a man who cared, and understood about, clothes and you could just see that'. All the ‘messy’ human aspects of worn clothing - loose threads, wear and tear, frayed labels and imprints of the bodies that wore them - are rendered visible. Although Comme des Garçons is central to this exhibition it is not the whole story.
When we undertake biographical studies, hearing our protagonist’s voice is central to getting to know them. Sadly, we cannot hear Steven’s spoken words; tragically he died suddenly, aged just 54 years. It is Carol who audibly shares their story, offering insights into Steven’s work and their lives together. Her deep feelings are palpable and, as such, this is also a love story.