The Scottish artist who swapped his work for $10k of Comme des Garçons
New digital exhibition Dressing Above Your Station chronicles the works and wild style of late Glaswegian artist Steven Campbell and his wife Carol
When Mairi MacKenzie and Beca Liscombe first met in the mid-1990s, MacKenzie was teaching at Glasgow’s School of Art, while Liscombe had one foot out of the door and her sights set on London, where she was heading to study at Central Saint Martins.
A few years later, and they were both back in Scotland, where they became friends thanks to shared experiences – MacKenzie had been lured by London, too, but returned to Glasgow a couple of years after moving there. The two were bound by a mutual understanding of the fashion world, and the intrinsic ‘Scottishness’ that coursed through their veins – the two would sit at MacKenzie’s kitchen late talking late into the night about what it meant to be Scottish, their experience of leaving and coming back, and the new-found appreciation a bit of distance gave them for their homeland.
Fast forward to now, and the two have come together to curate an innovative new exhibition which explores Scottishness, artist Steven Campbell, identity, and the idea of ‘dressing above your station’. Now open at Glasgow’s Tramway and also available online for those unable to make it up there, Dressing Above Your Station compiles works by Campbell, as well as a series of unseen photos depicting his outlandish style – a mixture of military uniforms, charity shop finds, and a smattering of Comme des Garçons.
If you’re not familiar with Campbell’s work, a brief history. After leaving school at 16, he went into the steel industry, but soon left to pursue art at Glasgow’s prestigious school, before securing a Fulbright scholarship. Going on to study at the city’s Pratt Institute in the early 80s, Campbell didn’t really attend many lectures – instead, he used the school’s studio to paint. When he finally began to show his work, he found critical and commercial success very quickly. And, despite a move to the Big Apple, his painting retained a unique Scottishness.
“There were a lot of sculpture references and Scottish landscapes and textiles in there, and a lot of the men and women he depicted in his work looked like people he knew from Scotland,” explains MacKenzie, who also curated standout V&A show Night Fever: Designing Club Culture in 2021. “That Scottishness never really left him, and I think sometimes you have to leave somewhere to appreciate it. When you’re growing up, you’re like ‘God, I hate this place, it’s rubbish. Nothing ever happens here!’ But then you go away, and you start to see its good points – and get really nostalgic for weird things when you get home. Jackie Bird on the regional news, or whatever.”
What really drew MacKenzie and Liscombe into Campbell’s story, however, was a revelation from his wife Carol during a talk at the Tramway, detailing a transaction between Campbell and Diane Benson, who was the manager of NY’s Comme des Garçons boutique. “Diane had her own clothing store, and often asked artists to create campaigns for her – she was instrumental in Cindy Sherman working with Issey Miyake, and did some really groundbreaking things,” explains Liscombe. “So Diane took a real shine to Steven’s work, and bought a painting from him for $10,000 store credit. She’s still got the painting, actually – she gifted it to one of her kids who’s still got it hanging in his house.”
Already known for his avant-garde approach to dressing, both Steven and Carol Campbell began peppering their wardrobes with Comme’s wild silhouettes, as seen in the photos that line the walls of the exhibition. “If you’re from a small town in Scotland, you’re going to get slagged off if you dress up, you know? But I think something we recognised in Steven as in ourselves is that you can just have a laugh with it,” says Lipscombe. “Something we and I think he always enjoyed was dressing up in a way that isn’t seen as expected for his station in life, and getting a lot of pleasure from that. There’s some amazing photos of him at DisneyLand with his kids in these quite out-there looks, and they just look mortified,” she adds, laughing.
The show also pays tribute to Glasgow’s long held status as a surprising, subversive fashion destination. “It had the most amazing shops in the 80s,” remembers MacKenzie. “It had one of the first Versace store outside Milan, and The Warehouse stocked all the amazing Japanese and Belgian ‘anti-fashion’ designers. It was the first place up here to stock Westwood and Pam Hogg, too. Beyond spotlighting Steven, it was also about celebrating that.”
Click through the gallery above, and visit the digital version of Dressing Above Your Station here.