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Art as a warning

A dozen years ago Steven Campbell probably would not have been taken seriously as an artist in New York, and 30 years ago he would have been laughed out of the art world. He might have been able to show his work in a very out-of-the-way gallery, but his art and all it represented would have been ridiculed as regressive and irrelevant, and he himself would have been advised to paint nonrepresentationally, or to get out of art entirely.

As things stand now, however, this 29-year-old Scottish painter currently living in New York is sitting pretty close to the top of the world. His inclusion last summer in a group show in New York's SoHo district drew good critical response, and his two-gallery exhibition this past December was taken very seriously by most of those who saw it.

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His exhibition was impressive, and gave promise that he might soon join the small group of marvelously idiosyncratic artists of stature this century has produced. He already seems right at home - in temperament and attitude if not yet in the quality of his work - in the company of Stanley Spencer, Max Beckmann , Paul Delvaux, Ivan Albright, and the older Philip Guston. And he certainly holds his own with such current art-world favorites as Sandro Chia, Eric Fischl, and Jorg Immendorff.

What he may still lack in finesse he more than makes up in formal structuring , psychological insight, and a good, clear instinct for the pictorial potentials of paint. His canvases are huge, well organized, figurative, and powerfully painted. They are also disquieting and provocative and tend to ask questions rather than provide answers or to tell tales that make strict logical sense.

This ambiguity and oblique approach to narrative is very typical of the art of the 1980s, which tends more toward an anxious examination of the human condition and of human fate than toward the sort of formal purism that engaged the artists of the past several decades. Many of today's more vital and significant younger artists dramatically reflect the uncertainty that pervades our nuclear age. They assume, as the artists of the past 40 years did not (at least not in their work), that the end of the world is probably quite near, and that their art as a result must serve a much more socially concerned function than did the art of a more secure and stable time.

The more intense and anxious among them see their art as a warning - and they present these warnings in stark and uncompromising terms: If such and such isn't done, if the nations of the world don't eliminate the danger of nuclear war, then such and such will happen - and what that is is generally portrayed in overwhelmingly graphic detail.

These artists argue that this is not the time for pictorial niceties or formal purism, that it is time for action and for an art that so clearly spells out the horrors of nuclear war that we will do all in our power to prevent it.

Some very effective work has been produced by these artists. Although weakened somewhat by their intensity, and limited in their overall significance by the narrowness of their focus, these works do nevertheless function as highly relevant contemporary art. Whether or not that relevancy will extend into another age is still an open question. But, whatever happens, these works will at least have been of considerable social significance - and possibly even of profound, life-saving importance - to those of us living at this moment in time.

Of less immediate impact, but of almost certainly greater long-range cultural significance, is the kind of contemporary art typified by the paintings of Steven Campbell. Although permeated by the same sense of unease and uncertainty about our collective future as that found in the work discussed above, Campbell's paintings resist those works' tendency toward hysteria and hopelessness and move instead toward a more ironic and less cataclysmic reading of the human condition.

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True enough, disaster lurks in Campbell's paintings, but more as an ever-present but manageable danger than as an inevitable earth-obliterating event. In his world, the worst will not happen if we exercise caution and restraint and remain fully aware of who, what, and where we are.

Campbell's art does not so much warn us as remind us of the stark realities of our age, and of the fact that we will never again live in a world that cannot be destroyed in a matter of minutes by human hands. That may not be the specific meaning of particular works, but it is what I perceive as the underlying point of every one of his paintings I have seen. It is the source of their power, effectiveness, and haunting fascination, and of their uncanny ability to rivet our attention and to cause us to think.

Even his distortions and scale contribute to this effect - to say nothing of his blunt paint-handling and masterful control of the interplay between genuine drama and melodrama. His ''inaccuracies'' of drawing and ''clumsiness'' of technique also work on his behalf, for they add to his work's haunting sense of disquietude rather than detracting from it.

There is a direct, take-it-or-leave-it attitude about Campbell's art that is impressive and that stands out as welcome relief from the formal preciousness and Pop Art cuteness that dominated our museums and galleries for so long. Campbell addresses us directly and forcefully, and doesn't try to ''communicate'' indirectly with us in the manner of a bottle thrown into the sea. The resulting dialogue may be a little blunt and lacking in finesse, but it is a dialogue - and about important issues at that.

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