Naomi Andrée Campbell: Abstract Correspondences

Naomi Andrée Campbell comes from Montreal and its environs, where she grew up and studied science and art. But she made the decision to move to New York roughly two decades ago. Currently living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and working as a faculty instructor at The Art Students League of New York, Andrée Campbell has a studio at the NARS Foundation close to her home. Recently, I spent an afternoon with her discussing a sequence of abstract watercolor works on paper, in which jagged masses and bits of color collide and overlap and jostle each other; for a New York audience, this sort of medium-size abstraction looks a lot like the kind of lyric abstraction we recognize so well here. But, according to the artist, this is not the case. Something else is happening; first of all, Andrée Campbell informed me that the shapes, however nonobjective and inchoate they may be, are not products of the imagination only. Instead, they loosely, without detail, refer to objects in her apartment, referring to the artist’s altered perception of reality during the quarantine demanded by Covid--Andrée Campbell’s isolation had her rethinking things, concentrating on the liminal transformations of time and place. The drawings are watercolors, painted with a brush. They gather in bits and pieces across parts of the page, allowing for large areas of white paper to occur.

The work is fragmentarily beautiful. The question behind this art, which really does look like abstract expressionism, is whether it can be understood as separate from the New York School. We remember that Andrée Campbell is not a native New Yorker, although it is true that many artists in this city come from other places--a New York origin is not a necessary condition for making art like that of Andrée Campbell’s. Indeed, her influences are more profoundly Japanese, incorporating shizen, indicating a natural order with purpose and intention; and yugen, the idea of implying more by showing less. At the same time, we cannot rule out local influence, which surely has had some result in the way Andrée Campbell thinks and works. Yet the impact can be strange--galleries and museums still support painting that obviously resemble the poetic abstraction that took place more than a few decades ago. This kind of work still sells and is popular. So, it is hard not to imagine Andrée Campbell’s watercolors as evidencing, even if only to a small extent, a point of view that references the New York School. Or at least they would be looked at in that fashion by the current art audience.

Still, Andrée Campbell refuses an abstract-expressionist contextualization. It is possible to consider the art of Arshile Gorky considering the discussion. Gorky has been described as America’s leading surrealist just as often as he had been labeled a New York School artist. In his late work especially, he drew from natural sources, so his abstraction has a specificity and a detail that comes from the real world. Indeed, several of his titles refer to nature. The point is that his abstraction is rooted in the efflorescences of the garden, giving him a particularity that differentiates his work from his fellow painters of the time. Not so very differently, Andrée Campbell’s process is rooted in actual objects belonging to her apartment. They cannot be experienced truly as things in her paintings since she is working at such a distance from the thing itself. But a degree of discreteness enters these drawings in ways that can be read as pointing to actualities in life as well as in the brain. As a result, the works suggest an internal structure we don’t usually associate with abstract art. This gives her art a gravity we don’t see much in today’s nonobjective efforts.

By the very virtue of its facture Andrée Campbell’s art poses a question that needs to be brought up: To what extent is the abstract valid in this late period of its production? The kind of abstraction we see even now is really a distant consequence of the fragmented planes of cubism, which is more than a century old. More recently, but still seventy years ago, a freer, more organic language was developed, mostly in New York. Andrée Campbell certainly has experienced this art for some twenty years; surely, it has made an impression on her. But it cannot be forgotten that she is partly Japanese on her mother’s side. The Japanese way of painting--the love of the particularity of nature, the sense that things have their right place in arrangements both natural and human--balances her work in favor of a well-handled design, even if the appearance of her forms are acutely misshapen and their occurrence in the composition feels entirely random. How do we make chance a governing principle in art? Perhaps that is a Japanese methodology as well. Freedom of expression certainly occurs in Andrée Campbell’s art, but as I have noted, its range is based upon an internal structure that cannot be called unconstrained. 

Once we understand the complexity of Andrée Campbell’s position--half Western, half Asian; partially figurative, partially abstract--we can see that her art reflects intricacies that are both above and below the surface. The exterior of the paintings is wildly free, to the point of anarchy, while beneath their ostentatiously libertarian exuberance there is more than a ghost of rigor. (The artist can return to a painting over days or even weeks.) The parts of each painting fall into place with startling accuracy, no matter how disconnected the components may seem at first. Within the nearly endless freedom we find in this work, we also come across Andrée Campbell’s determination to bring about a scenario that does in fact have some rational motive. We usually think of art as being a highly intuitive process, the art of recent times especially. But it is also true that good art can be regarded as an example of reason. Certainly, the scientific element is not visible in this work, but it does affect the way Andrée Campbell thinks. She sits with her setup, sometimes for hours. The painting becomes an edited version of what she finds before her. According to the artist, she paints what she sees and perceives, making use of the fundamentals of perception: how the brain recognizes forms in the environment. Often the paintings are of food in the kitchen, subtly illuminated by the failing light at the end of the day.

The drawings themselves are marvelously spirited expressions. “Outbreak” (2020), even to an uneducated eye, looks very much like a series of branches isolated from the trunk of a tree. To the left there seem to be a few leaves, with small fruit hanging from them; to the right there are two slate-blue branch-like forms, again with blots that suggest individual leaves. At the same time, of course, this deliberate reading can be challenged by another interpretation, in which the forms are actively random and present little or no alignment with nature. We seem to be jumping back and forth between the (questionable) divide that separates what we can recognize from what we cannot. “A Logic of Infinity” (2020) holds bursts of color--red, moss green, dark green, mauve, and black--that tend to mass in the work’s center. It is very difficult to characterize the shapes we see, which are rounded and angular, thick and thin, dark and light. They cross the page, slightly vertical in orientation, with abandon. If one were inclined to criticize the piece, it might be commented that the work is a bit of a mess. But in light of the freedoms taken already in abstract painting, this cannot be said. We need to acknowledge the spontaneity of the artwork, which climbs over itself in the most unfettered manner. 

“Fixations” (2020) is slightly more intricate than the other works, given the profusion of their forms, which variously collect in the upper register. It is impossible to describe the profusion of their colors and shapes, which overlap and nudge each other in so mixed an array that it might be described as a particularly gifted child’s drawing. Yet of course Andrée Campbell’s sophistication of effect comes across, creating a welter of distinctions that in the case of this piece feel completely abstract. In discussion, she commented that the movement in Fixations informs our perception in time. Even as we acknowledge the undisciplined nature of the forms, we cannot forget the overall composition, which is enjoyable, and in the end plausible, to the extreme in its wish to consider duration. Something needs to be said about process in the artist’s work--the group of drawings is essentially a meditation on procedure, a way of working that carries its value as an action as much as a form. In the end, though, we are looking at shapes whose origins derive from genuine things. Andrée Campbell cannot escape her time anymore than the rest of us; we are living in a period, at least in America, of undiluted expressiveness and liberty in art. So, her work is inevitably a product of such style. But what if we were to think of her freedom as being supported by an inner judgment as well as a foreign culture. That would make things much more complex and much more internally structured.

The 2021 watercolor called “Silent Monologues” might resemble a group of colored leaves (red, purple, black, tan) hanging from a hidden bough. The forms cover the top and bottom right of the paper, filling those areas with a plethora of soft and hard edges and, sometimes, simply an unfocused shape. The upper left is dominated by purple and red; the upper right contains red and tan; and the lower right shows off tan and purple-black forms. It could be a spirited abstraction; it could be a marvelous piece of scenery. We can speculate that throughout these drawings something of the Japanese reverence for nature comes through--even if a major source of inspiration is food! Andrée Campbell collapses shapes so that they lay over each other, creating interesting ownerships of space. It may be close to impossible to describe in detail the elements of the drawings, but that may well be their greatest strength. Their complexity of arrangement, along with the many, many particulars they embody, result in compositions that our minds can adhere to as well as our eyes. In this sense, Andrée Campbell can be seen as a cerebral painter, despite the exuberance of color and our attraction to her surface. Thus, she proceeds with her mind as well as her hand. But there is also the notion of yugen, mentioned above, which embodies the idea of mystery and profundity in Japanese art, existing in the artist’s work.

Painting now is no longer marked by a common vision. Many kinds of styles compete for our attention. Lyric abstraction remains highly favored in New York City, where it began. Andrée Campbell cannot reject the visual values of her city completely, but she can endeavor to convey what I think amounts to a merger of urban nonobjective art and a poetic Asian imagery taken from nature. This combination is what gives her art its harmonic, and its energetic, quality. These days many people’s experience of nature is received through the technology of the Internet. Additionally, we are living in strange circumstances artistically--buying and selling art occurs on the Internet; it may even exist only on the Internet. Andrée Campbell’s sources may not be visible, but they are there, objectified by her skill. In a time when art from Asia is not receiving the full attention it deserves, it serves us well to contemplate the internationalism of New York City. The artist is of mixed background and comes from another country: this makes her a perfect New Yorker! Her work inevitably reflects her background, although there is not much in it that spells out any origin from a specific culture.

In the long run, hybrid notions of creativity will be accepted as a matter of course. This is a major part of identity art. But that kind of work emphasizes the person first and foremost. Andrée Campbell does something different; she has produced a sequence of drawings that compel us to question the origins of her imagination, which are taken more with Japanese culture than one might think. Yet this query does not seem to be developed consciously in the art. Instead, traces of the painter’s background come through in ways we can intimate but not necessarily prove. All art, in its final aspect, leans toward the unknown, even if the mystery is far from deliberate. So, the forms we encounter in Campbell’s art occur both in her thought and in her vision. They transform the commonplace into the lyric. Should we be seeking a language of luminous abstraction, we will find it here; should we be looking for a visionary view of nature, we will also discover it in the work. Andrée Campbell offers us both in the hope that one will not be championed at the expense of the other. Her sensibility is intricate in both its expression and its implications. Without acknowledging both, we would lose the wonderful elaborations of her art.


- Jonathan Goodman, New York, October 2021