Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

Figure by Gretna Campbell

  • Title: Figure
  • Artist: Gretna Campbell
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Size: 31"h x 44"w
  • Creation date: 1987
  • Added to collection: 2018
  • Donor: Gift of Martha Campbell
  • Campus: Rock Creek
  • Location: B5/2 Common area
A thin, young woman lies on a sheet on a couch, her body filling the canvas in a bold diagonal zig zag. She looks to the side, lost in her own thoughts. This large painting is bold and confident, like a big gesture drawing in paint:  a blossom of yellow light surrounds her head; the left corner is little more than an outline of a table. It is as much about paint as about image.  Although it was made in 1987, it owes its language to the agitated paint surfaces of the Abstract Expressionists who were Campbell's contemporaries and artistic mentors.  Andrew Forge wrote:  "Gretna was what Van Gogh called 'a painting locomotive'.... Painting was her instrument and she played it as though the canvas and the colored substance under her hand, were extensions of herself."
Campbell, primarily a landscape painter, often turned to the figure when she was in the city or unable to paint outdoors.   The long, rich and often problematic tradition of nude figure painting in Western art is evoked here, though this painting does not have the sexualized gaze common to this genre, nor does the figure's seeming unawareness of the viewer imply voyeurism. The rumpled sheet covering the sofa and painter's table in foreground suggests the world of art school with its bored models and shabby studio furniture.  The painting dates from the last year of the artist's life, just before she died from cancer at age 65; the contradiction between the lively paint handling and the slight melancholy and vulnerability which surrounds the model's thin, almost emaciated body is striking.