“Campbell + Campbell, Recent Paintings,” an exhibition of plein air landscape paintings by Nancy Campbell and Jon Campbell at the Arts Society of Kingston, is a visual delight. While many of the canvases depict scenes in and around Saugerties as well as in the countryside around Berlin, where Jon has resided for the past decade,their emphasis on color, simplified shapes, and broad brushwork is first and foremost a celebration of the art of painting. The work adheres to Maurice Denis’ famous dictum that a painting “is essentially a plane surface covered with colors in a certain order.” Compositional elements lead the eye to a focal point, conveying a sense of space and movement; in Jon’s work, much of the canvas tends to be taken up with a foreshortened field, pushing the horizon line, with its cluster of trees and buildings,to near the top edge of the canvas, which besides creating a bridge between the space of the viewer and the distant background creates an exciting tension betweenlarge and small shapes. The work of both artists has an immediacy, making one want to pick up a paint brush.
While each artist is readily identified by the style of his or her work, there’s clearly a kinship—indeed, a literal one: Saugerties-based Nancy, long known in the community for her leadership at the Woodstock School of Art as well as cultural mover and shaker, is Jon’s mom. It’s fun to compare the two bodies of work. Jon’s penchant for light, warm colors close in value and his spontaneous brushwork, whichsimplifies and abstracts the image,is reminiscent of that god of contemporary perceptual painters, Fairfield Porter. His paintings convey a palpable sense of light, atmosphere, and space thanks also to his precision with tones (lights and darks). The one large painting in the show, by Jon, depicts a country road in the snow with the utmost simplicity and economy, yetits carefully calibrated grays and browns convey the particular light and feel of a cold overcast day.
Nancy’s work is smaller, more intimate and realistic in style,and she is also no slouch when it comes to composition, color and in particular, capturing the light. Several of her strongest works feature patterns of blue shadows on snow: in another,reflected light in the ice-covered trees fairly sparkles against the deep blue of the sky and the pattern of pale blue-gray tree shadows radiating off the bottom edge of the paperbring the viewer into the space. She also is expert at conveying lamplight in interior winter scenes. Many of the paintings by her in the show were executed in gouache, a medium whose directness and rich, matte hues convey a freshness.
“I love plein air,” she said, noting that she sometimes also uses photographic references. “I’ve been painting landscapes for 40- something years and I’m kind of learning how to keep things out. When Jon was here in June, for the first time we had a chance to paint together. It was fun. He paints really fast, and he’s been an inspiration to me because he tells me how to simplify.”
She added that she never gets tired of painting scenes in Saugerties, which “is a real town, without frills.” Her prints, particularly of winter scenes, are big sellers.
Nancy didn’t take art classes until she was in her early twenties(she had already married and divorced) and attendedSUNY Ulster.After she married her current husband, Mike and had three boys (Jon is the middle son), art got put on the back burner, although whenever she found the 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 visitedgalleries and museums and was particularly struck by a show in Paris of the Nabis, which inspired her to begin painting in oil.
Upon the family’s return to Saugerties, Nancy and fellow painter Angela Gaffney-Smith rented a studio in the village and began showing art at what they called the Half Moon Art Studio. She subsequently rented out a bigger studio/gallery space on Market Street and opened a coop, got elected to the Saugerties Town Board, and, when her four-year term was up, delved back into the arts community, helping initiate the Saugerties Artists Tour. Her kids having left for college, she transformed an upstairs bedroom into a studio and when that got too small, built an addition onto the house.
At the end of 2009 Nancy approached the director of the WSA about helping out part-time and was offered the job of director/president. She subsequently served as the school’s first executive director for five years and has since served on the board, currently as vice president. As director, Nancy significantly expanded the school’s enrollment to 500 students and obtained its first NYSCA grant as well as other significant funding. After learning that Saugerties High School had lost funding for its arts program, she worked with Kate McGloughlin, who was then the schools’ president, to obtain a Thompson Family Foundation grant to fund high school and college student scholarships. The school also enabled high school students to obtain Regents credit for its classes, offered a class in portfolio building, and worked with SUNY Ulster to provide credited classes.
After connecting with relatives on her Italian grandfather’s side in Italy, Nancy began offering an annual painting workshop in her ancestral village in 2012. “We get enough people to fit in a van,” she said, noting that the painters also get to participate in the life of the village, such as attending a baptism. Next March, she will also be traveling to Ireland for an artist’s residency.
Jon credits his sense of color with his exposure as a very young child to watching his mother paint and also from the Van Gogh and Gauguin posters that hung in the house. “Visiting galleries and museums as a young kid, I was drawn to Fauvism and Post-Impressionism, particularly Matisse,” he told this reporter in a phone interview conducted in June, during his stay in Saugerties.
Born in 1982, he took private lessons in art in middle school and in 1998 began studying with Eric Angeloch at WSA, an institution that was critical to Jon’s development as an artist: “I had a scholarship at some point and continued at the 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 his second year and moving back to Saugerties, having witnessed and been traumatized by 9/11. He worked in maintenance at the WSA and studied painting with then-WSA teacher John Bradford, which was a turning point: “He kind of cracked me open,” Jon recalled. “I’d been careful and precious, focusing on rendering accurately in terms of laying the paint on a canvas. At one of John’s first lessons, he had a model in the middle of the studio and I was rendering [the model] using[expensive] Old Holland paint. He squeezed out half a tube of cadium yellow and smeared it on my canvas. I was having a panic attack, but in that momenthe taught me you can really lay on the paint. You can be very physical. He was the first teacher to get the painting done in one go, which also catered to my natural sensibility.”
Jon earned a BFA from SUNY-Purchase in 2006, studying with Bradford at the WSA during the summer. “Most of my friends were going to New York City [after graduating], but I didn’t want to repeat that story,” he said. “There was a couple that bought a lot of my work throughout art school and I used that money to go to Berlin.”
Jon arrived in Berlin in May 2007. After three months he switched his tourist visa for a student visa. “I signed up for a German course and got a visa for a year, then I applied for an artist visa,” a process that involved showing the authorities invoices of hispainting sales and freelance work. Eventually he got a work permit and spent ten years working in a nightclub bar before finally, last December,becoming a German resident.
He lost his job in March 2020 because of the pandemic and as an official full-time artist went on welfare, which “is really new for me, though a lot of artists in Germany are on welfare. Instead of trying to get me a job, [the caseworkers] want me to focus on art and music and recommend business training,” which the government will pay for. His apartment in Berlin “is super tiny, super cheap and also functions 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 in the last 10 years rents have gone up a lot,” he said.
Jon also makes music—something he considered a hobby, though he’s played guitar and written songs since he was a teenager, until 2015, when he was dating a semi-famous musician who encouraged him. Jon subsequently released two LPs, writing and arranging all the songs and hiring session musicians. He now has a Berlin-based distribution company, although most of the money he makes from his music derives from touring and merchandising.
While he’s “dabbled in total abstraction,” he most enjoys painting plein air landscapes and portraits. “I have a wagon I attach to my bike, throw in my easel and equipment, and ride out to parks,” he said, noting that Berlin has many. “Last year I was riding eight to nine miles [to paint]. Several of these paintings are in the ASK show and were all done alla prima, painted in three to five hours.”
Being based in Germany hasn’t precludedexhibiting 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 has since closed the gallery but has continued to show Jon’s work at art fairs). Jon objects to art as being the province of mainly the wealthy and tries to keep his prices affordable. In the last year he 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” is on display at ASK, 97 Broadway, through August 27. The gallery is open Tues. through Sat. from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. See Askforarts.org for more information.