Right place, right time
November 4, 2012 § 3 Comments
REVIEW | JEROME TARSHIS
Partly because it is exhibited in a gallery made up of several small rooms, partly because of the preferences that inform the collection of Charles and Glenna Campbell, visiting the show titled “Treasures” — now on view at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery — is almost eerily reminiscent of visiting Charlie’s gallery.
In 1947, when Charlie brought his love of jazz up from Los Angeles and opened a frame shop near the school now known as the San Francisco Art Institute, he was in the right place at the right time. Abstract Expressionism was being born, soon to be followed by the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Both styles featured an informal, spontaneous handling of paint, and the artists saw an obvious likeness between their way of working and the improvisation within defined limits that was typical of jazz.
In those years the school on the hill had perhaps more than its share of amateur musicians, a few of whom came together to perform as the Studio 13 Jass Band. Its early stars included some of the area’s best-known names. Among others were David Park on piano, Douglas MacAgy, the director of the school, on drums, Elmer Bischoff on trumpet and Wally Hedrick on banjo.
It isn’t every art school whose director is a jazz drummer, and Charlie Campbell was in his element. He began doing shows at the frame shop and, as a natural next step, buying and trading for art he liked.
In 1972 he opened the Charles Campbell Gallery down the hill in North Beach. By then abstract painting had passed its peak of popularity, and there seemed to be at least a niche for a gallery specializing in a mostly easygoing figuration.
Campbell says that with few exceptions, all of the shows at his gallery were of art that he might have collected; there was no very clear dividing line between home and office, or between pleasure and business. Walk up to the second floor of the gallery and you would often find Charlie eating lunch, surrounded by an array of photographs that seemed to be more about his interest in jazz than about his connections with art.
Apart from the show announced on the printed invitations, there would always be a mind-boggling assortment of Mexican folk art, East Indian miniatures and masks from God knows where. All in all, it was a heartening reminder that a passion for art need not confine itself to one region or continent or century.
Charlie closed his gallery in 2008, when he was 93 years old. At 97, he is still lively in conversation and, although officially retired, he hasn’t quite stopped buying and selling art.
Over the years he collected paintings and drawings by well-regarded local artists, by young artists barely out of school and by a few unpredictable outliers. The show at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery includes works by such Bay Area notables as Nathan Oliveira, Frank Lobdell, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown.
Among the non-Bay Area objects in the show is a disquieting portrait by a relatively obscure French artist, Jean Rustin. “It’s a very tough kind of painting for the average person,” Campbell says. “Many people look at this and turn away in disgust. But I like it and I like Rustin. A sweet guy.”
An artist friend once told me he loved Charlie’s gallery because, unlike so many in recent times, it showed art that had a smell of paint about it. One had a sense of being close to the pictures and their models and the materials themselves. Seeing things from close up, seeing intimately, was what the gallery offered.
One of my favorite pieces in the “Treasures” exhibition is an unassuming conte crayon drawing by Fred Dalkey, redolent of the atelier tradition in art; centuries of study by drawing from the figure glow at the viewer from Dalkey’s drawings.
In both feeling and execution they are poles apart from another of my favorites in the show, Woman With High Heels, a confrontational though still engaging watercolor Nathan Oliveira painted in 1960.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the show, it is that what the gallery had going for it wasn’t any particular look; it was Charlie.