July 21st 2014 Photo: “Touching My Wife’s Hair While She is Sleeping” by David Campbell. There’s a lot going on in the mirror. There’s you and all of your delusional corrections of the physiological shortcomings that stare back. There’s time’s ceaseless march forward played out in your stubble, creases, spots and droops. There’s your ego and all that stuff happening around it in the background. Confronting a mirror for a self-portrait means tackling the significance of all that as well as the sorting out the painting itself. But doing so creates a unique record of a human experience to which others might relate. David Campbell has assembled a series of compelling and humorous self-portraits, or self-effacing portraits that explore the fertile territory of self-doubt in the studio. Titled en masse, The Idiot, they employ humor as the catalyst towards more interesting self-reflection. There are elements of would-be caricature and prop gags in these pieces, but instead of simply being a painted joke, they rely on painterly intuition and the innate wit of paint to transcend into something more special. They are good paintings because of that wit not in spite of it. David is a fantastically gifted painter. He can make paint sing with exquisite beauty and has the deft ability to replicate his environment with the utmost fidelity. His earlier works of still life are so luminous that they appear as though they’re from the perspective of north light itself. But great skill can get a painter in trouble and the facility with which many talented painters have recorded their worlds has been their downfall. Such paintings can seem impressive at first and then boring. I don’t think David has ever really suffered from being boring but he is a skilled enough painter to be at risk. In one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons a dumpy boy at the entrance of a building labeled “Midvale School for the Gifted” pushes in vain with all his might at the door marked “Out”. The timeframe functioning in this joke is perhaps only a few seconds long, the time in which most folks would realize they are pushing on the wrong door, but here the child, who we presume excels in academics, instead leans in harder. A poetic character sketch is made by this—the endearing egghead who struggles to exist in a practical world. Like the gifted child pushing against the “Out” door, painters can be blinded by their own talent. Campbell by way of “The Idiot”, seems skeptical of his own talents and moreover the entire lofty pursuit of painting. His skepticism is not cynical and he allows for the painter to be redeemed through comedy. The paintings are intimate in the most awkward sense. The mirror in which he poses is a very active participant, and his perspective looking down upon it makes the viewer look up at him. He seems cramped and oafish in the mirror/painting and very much left to his own devices. The titles read like punch-lines but while some are literal (“Bang Head Pan Time” shows him holding a frying pan heroically about to clobber himself) others create more questions (“For the Last Time, How Many Goggles Do Polar Bears Sweat”). The lighting in these paintings is still something to marvel at and they look like they were very enjoyable to physically paint. The force of wit is one of painting’s less recognized powers. There is both humor inherent in the glop itself and in the artist’s expression it allows. As with all the effects that paintings have on the viewer the humorous aspects are laden with mystery. In the same way it is impossible to say why a fart is so funny, the best moments of painted humor are inexplicable—they simply are funny. Even without specific reasons for a paint-induced chuckle we can see that the distortions of time and space are culpable. Like a funhouse mirror, reality is bent in a painting and that grotesqueness can be both frightening and amusing. Often the self-portrait is a doorway through the countenance to the soul and mind of a painter. In David Campell’s Idiots though, he embodies a cartoon whose thoughts have been discredited and whose emotions have been simplified but not clarified. David the painter has been both implicated and removed from the conversation by the caricature. That sort of dodge doesn’t feel dishonest, but rather let’s the painting be a painting foremost instead of just a psychological window. The painterly craftsmanship and the clowning self-deprecation being depicted create an odd balance. The commonality between craft and clown seems to be the pursuit of simplicity. One is simplicity of the painted surface with a lush, earnest presence. The other is simplicity of mind where emotional intelligence takes precedence. Comedy absolves the comedian as painting absolves the painter. Fears are brought to the surface and simplified, making it a little easier to look in the mirror.