Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Interview with Jacob Campbell, Artist


After a recent surf session with your good friend, Jacob Campbell, the two of you sat down to lunch at Café Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu, where Mr. Campbell has chosen to present an exhibition of new drawings entitled Absolute Independent Reality Is Hard To Find.  Originally from Oxnard, California, Jacob studied fine art at the University of California--San Diego, receiving a B.F.A. in 2006.  He is also the son of Malcolm Campbell and nephew of Duncan Campbell, the duo who’ve been behind Campbell Brothers Surfboards since 1970.  Malcolm still shapes boards in California, while Duncan owns Café Haleiwa.  Their design, called the “Bonzer,” is unique in surfing history because it was the first to feature three fins, making it the archetype for the modern surfboard.  You took the opportunity to catch up with Jacob about art, surfing, and music, among other things.

THINGS IS COOL:  First of all, congratulations. This was kind of a long time in the making.



JACOB CAMPBELL:  Thanks. Yeah, it’s easily been over a year.  Last year [in 2011] when I was in Hawaii I started with a few drawings.



T.I.C.:  Why Café Haleiwa?



J.C.:  It’s been an outstanding offer that I do a show at the family’s Café.  I’ve wanted to see more surfing on the walls in here.  I remember coming in as a kid, years ago, and seeing all of the older Bonzer imagery.  So, to also commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Bonzer surfboard design, I wanted to create some artwork that was related to my dad and Duncan’s visual history, in a sense.  

T.I.C.:  Well, since you brought it up… When I mentioned to our friend, and a longtime Bonzer devotee, Tino Ramirez, that you and I were going to be discussing your show, he kind of half-jokingly told me to ask whether you considered this “surf art.”

J.C.:  Yeah, I’d say it is, but it’s almost in reaction against what is popularly considered surf art.

T.I.C.:  Which is…?

J.C.:  You know, the very groovy, you-know-it-when-you-see-it, flowy, pastel-y, everything’s cool, surfing art, which has a nice look and I appreciate it; a lot of it’s done really well.  But I wanted to try and create some drawings that were starkly opposed to that kind of look and feel.  

 DC1, 2011. Charcoal on paper. 40" x 38".


T.I.C.:  So where did you begin?

J.C.:  I started by going through the Campbell Brothers archive of older super-8 footage, which they have digitized.  I wanted to pick some frame grabs from it to freeze in time, if you will, and use as jumping off points for drawings.  Eventually, I zeroed in on this one wave of Duncan’s that I thought just had a nice look all around.  The first pieces that I did are the three of Duncan—each separate frame grabs from that same wave.  I always liked the film negative look, so in this case the dark surfer becomes a kind of light being, in a way.  Ghostly.  And the images really lent themselves to the use of charcoal, which is a medium I wanted to reinvest in.  I did those first three here in Hawaii before heading back to California, where I did a bunch more work.

 DC2, 2011. Charcoal on paper. 40" x 30".
 DC3, 2011. Charcoal on paper. 40" x 30".


T.I.C.:  They’re very dark, but they also—the waves and the ocean, in particular—have an otherworldly, even whimsical quality.

J.C.:  Yeah, I can see that.  Some people have even described the waves as oppressive, which I wouldn't totally disagree with.  The water looks a bit aggressive in the way it’s overtaking the surfer.  Maybe not so much in the one of my dad [Malcolm], which comes from a still photograph by Craig Fineman.

 MC 1 (Absolute), 2012. Charcoal on paper. 48" x 38".


T.I.C.:  The backside tube at Silver Strand?

J.C.:  Yeah, and that was on a sprained ankle no less.

T.I.C.:  What year was that?

J.C.:  Maybe ’74 or ’75?

T.I.C.:  And it’s inscribed with the title of the exhibition: Absolute Independent Reality Is Hard To Find.  Where does that come from?

J.C.:  It’s from a William James lecture.  William James, whom I previously submitted to your blog for the “Amazing Beards” series.

T.I.C.:  That’s right!  It was indeed an amazing beard.

J.C.:  [laughs]  Anyway, it’s from a lecture called “Pragmatism and Humanism,”  from 1907, I want to say.  He’s talking about the ways in which we, as human beings, instantly assimilate experience to fit within the perceptual frameworks we develop over a lifetime.  How, when we attempt to understand reality, we want to automatically put the experience into a box—mentally describing how we see things and feel about them.  But James is saying there’s something that exists outside of the description, something that’s independent of our perception, a reality that’s absolute, untouched by the human impression.  It’s out there, but it’s hard to find.  For me, I relate this to surfing, which I believe can be a direct route to experiencing this type of pure reality.  A surfer can have maybe a handful of these experiences in a lifetime, maybe just one that they can single out, and it’s that semi-clichéd thing of the ‘endless moment’ when you’re on a wave and everything’s happening and nothing’s happening at the same time.  The prospect of it is what keeps people getting back in the water, I would say.

T.I.C.:  You ever have it?

J.C.:  I can only think of maybe one or two times.

T.I.C.:  It didn’t happen to you today?

J.C.:  No, it did not happen today.

T.I.C.:  It didn’t happen for me either.

J.C.:  Well, it’s the prospect.  It’s surfing as a pursuit.  The pursuit of that moment.  You’re really, consciously or unconsciously, trying to get to that.

T.I.C.:  But something does happen every time.  I don’t want to get too New Age, but something does happen each time one rides a wave.  The interaction with nature, energy, or whatever, but you’re talking about an ineffable experience.  

J.C.:  Absolutely.  Some people will go on and talk about it in mystical terms, which I don’t necessarily think is an incorrect way to talk about it.  It’s a heightened experience that can happen.  

T.I.C.:  Is mysticism a theme in some of what we’re looking at here?

J.C.:  Indirectly I would say.  Nothing very consciously.  But my mind is always preoccupied with thoughts about life and reality, and surfing has so much been a part of our life—my family’s life—that you can’t help but try and mysticize it in some way.  It’s a life pursuit, and I think about it more in the longer term.  These drawings are, in a way, attempts at capturing that sense of expanding time.

 Cliff, 2012. Charcoal and colored pencil on paper. 48" x 38".


T.I.C.:  Talk a little about the scale of these pieces.  They’re quite large.

J.C.:  Yeah, they kept growing, actually.  I did the first three, and I had it in my head that I wanted to do larger scale drawings in order to force myself to deal with a larger canvas, which is a scary prospect but also a fun one.  So when I got back to California, I stopped off at a place in the [San Fernando] Valley and got some large rolls of paper, which egged me on to keep expanding the drawings in length.

T.I.C.:  You mention the lengths, and we’re looking at the two longest pieces in the show.  How long are they?  

J.C.:  Between 6’4” and 6’5”.

 [Left] Alpha Omega, 2012. Charcoal and colored pencil on paper. 76" x 40".
[Right] Mini-Merkabah, 2012. Charcoal and colored pencil on paper. 77" x 39".


T.I.C.:  They’re images of outlines of surfboard templates that appear to be floating on a black, black background.

J.C.:  Yeah, just a very clean looking template of a board, flat on the page.  And again, we were mentioning earlier the kind of anti-“surf art” imagery.  They’re very stark in this respect.  Almost topographical with the way the lines are laid out.

T.I.C.:  Right!  The contour lines within the outline.

J.C.:  So they’re pencil drawings surrounded by this black void of charcoal.  The first one, which you’re looking at now, is all one single line.

T.I.C.:  The detail is almost like…do you know the Tibetan Buddhist monks who make those sand mandalas?

J.C.:  Oh yeah.  I wrote a whole paper in college on the Tibetan sand mandala ritual.

T.I.C.:  That’s what it reminds me of.

J.C.: Cool.  I’m glad it evokes that.  I didn’t necessarily think along those lines.  For me, it just became an oversized drawing exercise, and I thought it would have a neat look if I kept at it.  It’s something that you look at from a distance, and you kind of see different shades and shapes happening, but you have to go up close to really see what’s going on.
 [Left] Alpha Omega [detail], 2012. Charcoal and colored pencil on paper. 76" x 40".
[Right] Mini-Merkabah [detail], 2012. Charcoal and colored pencil on paper. 77" x 39".


T.I.C.:  You must have been fairly active, physically, in making something like this.

J.C.:  Well, it’s one continuous line, but I picked up the pencil…

T.I.C.:  Don’t say that!  The people don’t need to know that.  Let the people believe it!

J.C.:  It would be just a Herculean task to do it continually.  I came back to this over a number of days.

T.I.C.:  All right, all right.  In these two images the surfboards have a sort of obelisk quality.

J.C.:  They’re sort of monoliths, in a way, small monoliths, but they have that obelisk presence in the room.  I did envision them hanging on this wall here.  They’re imposing shapes that complement each other I think.

 Brother Can You [S.T.S.], 2012. Charcoal on construction paper. 58" x 36".

 T.I.C.:  I wanted to ask you about some of these titles.  The one that jumped out at me was Brother Can You [S.T.S.].


J.C.:  I don’t put too much stock in titles.  They’re basically identifiers.  But that one has a man standing in this wave vortex with his arm out in an “alms for the poor” gesture.  But really, as far as the title goes, it’s just a namesake.

T.I.C.:  He could very easily be in space.

J.C.:  Hmm.  Somebody did ask if it was an abduction scene.

T.I.C.:  It’s just these—I assume they’re water droplets in the foreground—kind of look like asteroids.  And they’re coming at you in a Chris Lundy-esque way.

J.C.:  Oh, for sure.  There’s a major Lundy influence happening in this thing.  I told Duncan that this was my "Lundy" piece, and he laughed.  But I’ve always tremendously admired Chris’s paintings, and I hope this doesn’t act up as too much of an aping of his style.  

T.I.C.:  No, I don’t think so.  We were talking about the topographical nature of the contour lines within these surfboard templates—

J.C.: Which I used my dad’s actual templates to do.

 T.I.C.:  We’re looking at them, and then we shift to the actual surfboard that’s hanging on the wall.  I want to talk about the art on it, but also the board.


J.C.:  The board is a 5’6” Mini Light Vehicle.  Super fun little board.  It was commissioned by the Museum of Ventura County.  They were doing a surfing art and history exhibition, and they asked local shapers, including my dad, to submit a board.  So he and I teamed up for it.  He shaped the board, then left to go on a shaping trip to Portugal, and I was left to do the art.  I had this image floating around in my head of a wave embedded within the pattern of a thumbprint.  The shape of the board, which is a rounder template, lent itself to the drawing quite well.  I’m looking forward to riding it again once it’s off the wall.

T.I.C.:  Me too.

J.C.:  It’s going to go bonkers in some fun waves.

T.I.C.:  You’re a huge fan of cinema and music, and I wanted to discuss both.  What have you been listening to in general and what were you listening to when you were making these works?

J.C.:  It’s hard to go back and think of exactly what I was listening to, but listening to music is integral to art making for me.  It kind of speaks to you while you’re trying to speak to a canvas.  But I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz in the last few years, and that maybe has informed some of the movements within the drawings.  Somewhat freer, maybe looser strikes of charcoal on the canvas.

T.I.C.:  You were reading a book when you got here.  Some kind of collection of jazz essays or short stories…

J.C.:  A couple, actually.  One was called The Imperfect Art, by Ted Gioia, which is a series of theoretical essays.  The other book is called But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer, and it’s a collection of fictional criticisms where he takes the biographies of some iconic jazz musicians and creates stories.

T.I.C.:  What did you take away?

J.C.:  The toll that the music takes on the bodies of these people and their overall commitment to what they’re trying to express.  The realization that jazz is such a taxing endeavor.  Maybe the most striking thing is that if jazz didn’t exist for these individuals, they might not have had a voice to otherwise express themselves, and to do it as beautifully as they do through the medium.  It’s inspiring and it’s daunting to think of that level of commitment to really pursuing something.  I love art, but I don’t know that I’ve ever really pursued it with that level of intensity.

T.I.C.:  So you’re inspired?

J.C.:  Absolutely.  You can’t help but be.  Creative endeavors of any sort are all linked together by the spirit that drives them.  So, back to your original question, I’ve been in a little bit of a musical time capsule, and not listening to as much newer stuff.

T.I.C.:  But you’re coming up to that time of year when you offer your musical highlights from the past year on Transafixion, the blog you co-author.  So anything from 2012?

J.C.:  A handful of things.  I might pare it down to three things this year.  For me, and this is my personal selection, the number one musical “event” that happened in 2012 is Swans.  Michael Gira resurrected them a couple years back, and this year they released an album called The Seer, which is a fucking phenomenal piece of work.  It’s a single person’s obsessive expression.  This guy has been zeroing in on this album for 30 years; it’s the culmination of everything Swans have done.  And it’s overwhelming to listen to, like the sound of the Earth crying out.  They’re not little bite-sized melodies you can hum to.  These are 20 to 30-minute dirges that ratchet up with heavy percussion, heavy guitars.  Speaking of monolithic, these are monoliths of sound.  It’s a two-hour long album, a commitment to listen to.  For me, that’s the major highlight.  The new record from Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] also sounds good.

T.I.C.:  Have you heard the whole album?

J.C.:  Not yet.  But I’ve heard snippets.  I’ve been a huge fan of theirs for years, and I saw Thee Silver Mount Zion, which is Efrim Menuck’s other band, when they came to L.A. earlier this year.  Really great show.  These are artists who really put themselves into the work.  There’s a lot of contemporary music that sounds good, has good songwriting, but you don’t actually get a sense of who the people making it are, and with these artists that I’ve mentioned it’s like a necessity for them.  They have to make this music, it's their lifeblood, and that really comes through.  It’s not always easy listening, though.  Otherwise, I like me some Real Estate, just to cruise around to.

T.I.C.: [laughs]  I know, but what’s interesting about you, and looking at your art, and hearing you talk about these musicians, is that you’re after a more profound understanding of the human experience.

J.C.:  That’s a big subject.  These pieces are merely attempts at understanding.

T.I.C.:  I wouldn’t have expected you to solve it.

J.C.:  No, and that’s all art can really do; to act as endless signposts onto the next thing.  It’s the process of doing it that can maybe allow one to gain some insight over time.  These pieces are frozen and they speak to where I was when I did them.  But I’ve looked at them for so long now that I’m ready to move on to some different things.

Co-Reigning, 2012. Charcoal and colored pencil on paper. 30" x 54".


T.I.C.:  Some color, maybe.

J.C.:  Some color!  Maybe get some paints going.  I’d be keen to get back more into painting, but I’m not sure I’m done with charcoal entirely.  

T.I.C.:  As we’ve said, a number of these pieces came from film stills, and you’re a big film buff.  Have you ever thought of making a film?

J.C.:  It’s not something I’m currently seeking out, but at some point, yeah.  I’d like to.  I’ve worked on a number of film projects with friends.  Small documentaries that involve my dad and uncle’s surfboard making history.  And I’d say if there’s anything I have real filmic ideas about, it would be a film about them and their boards.  I have pretty strong ideas about what that should cover and entail.

T.I.C.:  I’m sure others do as well.

J.C.:  Uh, yeah.  There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, as far as that goes.  But that’s the thing with film that’s somewhat miraculous: even though it is such a community project where things can get diluted rather quickly, when a film really works you can still get a sense of the individual making it.  When you see a person’s film and it’s clear it came directly from his or her own experience and consciousness, it’s just the most beautiful thing in the world.  It’s more inspiring to me than most contemporary art ever could be.  Because it’s in motion and our lives are in motion; film goes great lengths into articulating our way of being in the world.  Not to dismiss other art forms at all, but to me it’s one of the heights of human expression.  So yeah, I’d like to give it a shot.  I still find the Campbell Brothers story a compelling one.  Obviously, I’m partial, but I think it could make for something interesting at some point down the road.  I mean, it’s still being told.  My dad is still shaping.  He’s 60 now.

T.I.C.:  I know he’s been traveling a lot this year, shaping in England, France, Portugal, and Australia.  There’s probably not a whole lot of time for him to get to work on something telling the tale, whether writing a book or a film…

J.C.:  People have brought up the idea of a book, which I think is another project that should happen.  But he is so invested in board making still.  He’s as in demand as he’s ever been, really, which is great, but he doesn’t have the time to put words to paper.  He’s a good writer, but with his schedule I don’t see it happening.  It’s going to probably take an outside perspective, I think, to really pull the book off.

T.I.C.:  There are some talented people out there who’d be willing to help, I’m sure.

J.C.:  I know.  It’s important.  They’re due.  

T.I.C.:  Jacob, thanks for taking the time.

J.C.:  Anytime.  Thanks, Ken.
For more information, visit JacobCampbellArt.com.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great work, Jacob! Also really enjoyed your perspectives, as usual, in the interview.

Brett