Making is Knowing: The Art of Ric Campman
Every light was a story, and the flashes themselves were the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides and comfort and warning.
— Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping
Much has been said, and still needs to be said, about Ric Campman’s art. This commentary attempts to provide a way to understand some of his seminal pieces. It is offered without presumption of authority or finality, but simply as part of an ongoing dialogue about the artist and his work.
When I first knew Ric, he was young and full of ambition to create. He studied architecture at Columbia University and then art at Keene State College. His 1978 lithograph Buffalo Sofa is a fine example of how well he had mastered the contemporary application of line, form, and color on a flat plane. He was also in love with language, and throughout his life, words—read and written—remained an essential part of his creative process.
As Ric moved beyond formal art training, he developed a style characterized by a search for self-realization, similar to that of post–WWII artists of the New York School. The exploration of conscious and subconscious material—asking what theologian Paul Tillich called questions of “ultimate concern”—in the line and color experiments of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning made a profound impression on Ric. It could be said that he lived Pollock’s mantra: “Painting is a state of being… Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” Toward the end of his extraordinary life, Ric set down in words his own quest for meaning undertaken through the creative expression of making art.
Ric’s book Making Is Knowing (with Lydia Thomson, River Gallery School, 2004) is the culmination of a personal and aesthetic journey. For Ric, art making was a process, a journey toward knowing. The artist begins with not knowing, approaching the work with no prior assumptions. Through engagement with his medium, he finds beauty in wholeness or balance: harmony between self and world. As Ric phrased it: “Beauty seems to arise in spite of, or beyond, our intentions, rather than because of them… This suggests that wholeness is the ground where beauty is discovered.”
For Ric “making is going” (on the journey); “making is finding” (discovery through creative endeavor); ultimately “making is knowing” (beauty in wholeness). In All Sickness is Home Sickness, Dianne Connelly calls this journey “coming home,” home to self, home to here, home to now, which speaks of full awareness and peace. Fortunately for us, Ric left maps and “markers” on his way. He told stories with many of his images. These became metaphorical illuminations or, as Jeanette Winterson writes, “flashes [of light]… going out over the waves as markers and guides and comfort and warning.”
An undated oil on paper, Ways of Going, with incised lines and words, is Ric’s Rosetta Stone of “markers.” The superimposed geometric grid defines a classical arrangement of circles, squares, and rectangles, recalling the Golden Section and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. This ideal design of human and mathematical perfection (reinforced by the word “balance” inscribed on its outer edge) is extended at several points where its lines continue to the edge of the paper. A sense of other dimensions, of infinity, is thus introduced. The picture becomes a metaphor for the quest for harmonic proportion—for beauty found through personal explorations—indicated by superimposed word pairs, which help guide us through Ric’s process toward knowing. A few pairs conjure up works in the current exhibition.
“Landscape—Energy”: Ric’s intimate relationship with the natural world evolved from years of living in a magnificent bucolic setting at Mountainside Farm in New Hampshire. There he created many beautiful landscape pictures but was always searching the trees and mountains for something more. Ric found an energy beneath and behind the visible terrain.
In his Tree series Ric exposes layers of the rock and soil that support planetary life. The “tree” in these pictures is a stand-in for the depth and power of the earth. As family trees reveal generations, so Ric’s trees unearth geologic time. They become markers joining us to the earth. One hollowed-out “tree”—an anthropomorphic form with a mask-like head—is quite possibly a totem representing the indwelling powers of the natural world. The journey into nature has expanded the artist’s sense of place and time.
“Barrier—Relationship”: As a marker, Barrier of Paper provides clues to the obstacles confronted on the journey and the means to move beyond them. Reminiscent of Picasso’s semiotic collage, Ric juxtaposes a newsprint collage where a diminutive figure’s head appears trapped in daily scandals and superficial sensationalism with pictograph-like writing pointing toward the means of escape. His words range from “home” and “children” to “love” and “M-theory”—the micro and macro ends of the universe joined in wholeness.
“Abstraction—Myth”: Planck Time touches on much of the physics theory central to Ric’s thinking. Issues of gravity, space-time measurement, the multidimensionality of string theory, and other concepts from advanced physics are enveloped in an image of unearthly balance and harmony. The grandeur of the image demands that viewers use the created space of the picture to pause, to sense the music of the universe.
The scientific universality of Planck Time finds a counterpart in Planck Length, a marker where the myth of alchemic transformation of elements overrides the natural processes of thermodynamics. A hand, so important to Ric’s art, bursts into flame at its fingertips, where the artist touches the paper while moving pigment through a base medium of wax. This explosive energy from a single hand points toward a heroic journey through creative process. The cognitive awareness in Planck Time and the imaginative fire in Planck Length complement each other as beacons and flashes of light (Planck Time even recalling the physical appearance of a lighthouse).
The markers continue, pointing toward the journey home. First Man Underground dates from Ric’s initial confrontation with the cancer that would eventually claim his life. This powerful work proclaims the artist’s courage to accept his dire circumstance. The fragmented figure struggles against a final burial; the face’s distorted features embody pain. Ric dug down for archetypes here, while employing stylistic features from predecessors, such as Jasper Johns and de Kooning.
Ric’s search for meaning culminates with Untitled (Monument), most likely dating from 2002–2005. In a dreamlike setting, where darkness pervades the background—except for a low, fire-line horizon—a brightly lit rectangular slab rises in the foreground like a holy tablet. It seems to stand on a verdant island in the sea of the damned, the power of its brightness dispelling the darkness above and behind. On it Ric inscribed a good portion of the text of Making Is Knowing. The artist had found his peace. He had discovered beauty in the whole, a universe that encompasses both darkness and light. Having explored the far reaches of his own mind, as well as aspects of our expanding universe, the artist had, at last, “come home” to himself and his world.
Great Joy is, in many respects, Ric’s most widely known work of art, which he completed in hundreds of versions and gave freely to others. For it was joy as well as insight that Ric shared with generations of family, students, and friends. Those of us who have come upon some of the same truths, perhaps through different means, celebrate him and the “markers… as comfort and warning” that he left behind.
—Tony Gengarelly, Professor
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
All works in this exhibit are on loan courtesy of Tom and Gina Anderson, Marilyn Buhlmann, Barbara Merfeld Campman, Finn Campman and Helen Schmidt, Helen Claire, Kim Colligan, Carolyn DiNicola-Fawley and Brad Fawley, Doris Fredricks, Ann and Tony Gengarelly, Betsy Gentile, Nan Heminway, Lisa Mendelsund, Petria Mitchell, Shar Solms, and Lydia Thomson.
Making is Knowing: The Art of Ric Campman is funded in part by gifts from David Bayer and Flo Magdalena, Vincent and Hi Kyung Brandt, Marilyn Buhlmann, Helen Schmidt and Finn Campman, Christopher G. Chapman and Alison E. Hale, Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, Carolyn DiNicola-Fawley and Brad Fawley, Donna and Richard Hawes, Nan Heminway, Susan James in memory of Gerry and Ric, Faith L. Pepe, Walter and Susan Slowinski, John and Robin Stronk, Lydia and Rob Thomson, Janet Wallstein and Jane Dewey, Carolyn Wood, Toby Young, and an anonymous donor.
We extend sincere thanks to Ric Campman’s family and River Gallery School colleagues, who spent countless hours sifting through troves of work and memories in support of this exhibit. BMAC and River Gallery School trustee Petria Mitchell was tireless in tracking down and cataloguing Ric’s work in private collections throughout Windham County and beyond. Without her passion, energy, and excellent eye, this exhibit would never have come into being.