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  • Rebecca Campbell (bio)

The Potato Eaters, 2013–2014

“The Potato Eaters” series is inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s work of the same name as well as by my own family’s agrarian roots. My mother and father were both raised on potato farms; black and white photos of that time and place serve as inspiration for many of the paintings in this series.

In 1885 van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: “I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands that they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and—that they have thus honestly earned their food.” As Europe in 1885 was already very much an industrial economy, one might be tempted to see van Gogh’s turn to the land as romantic or sentimental. I would suggest that this gesture of turning to the past to examine a more direct relationship between humans and the land is more accurately characterized as nostalgic.

The word “nostalgia” has its origins in the Greek nostos, meaning “return home,” and the Old English genesan, “to survive.” [End Page 138]

In making works that examine aspects of family and cultural history, memory, documentation, and nostalgia, I hope to address nostalgia’s disruptive effects on linear time and to propose that this phenomenon might be considered under the rubric of an archetypically feminine sublime, as an underestimated strategy for finding meaning in the face of loss and death. When a person acutely experiences nostalgia, time collapses and the past, the present, and the future become one. A nostalgic moment for me might be triggered by a photograph of my mother as a young woman: that in turn prompts other memories or thoughts, perhaps of my own youth, of yesterday afternoon, and ultimately of experiences I have yet to have or that are not even my own. Time becomes nonlinear in a space that is both sad and sweet at the same time. Nostalgia somehow enables us to sing along to the tune of our own deaths.

In this series I’m also concerned with the connections and distance between the theoretical and the physical. I’m inspired by Roland Barthes’s suggestion that the value of works in modernity comes from their duplicity. In that light, I am creating works that seek out the seam between ideas and their performance. In specific, theoretical notions of nostalgia, time, and the sublime are considered through physical acts of making paintings, installations, sculptures, and films—creating documents of connections and distances between these realities. The works of art become artifacts of the ideas that are processed through experiences and the inevitable distortion that occurs between these ideas and their practice.

In “The Potato Eaters” I explore the often sentimentalized and disregarded significance of nostalgic experience. It is often assumed that the act of “art” lies primarily in the conceptualization of an object or experience and that the artist’s hand or body is at best irrelevant and at worst a corrupting force in an idealized realization of that act. I, like van Gogh, am interested in the intersection of visceral experience and intellectual production. It is through the lens of nostalgia—with its blurring of before and after, then and now, body and memory—that these paintings attend to land, labor, and the physical realm, staving off, for a time, the false comforts of the purely conceptual. [End Page 139]

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Rebecca Campbell, BIG FISH, 2014
Oil on board, 33 × 40 in.
Photo: L.A. Louver

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Rebecca Campbell, DAD WITH CAR, 2013
Oil on board, 24 x 36 in.
Photo: L.A. Louver

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Rebecca Campbell, MOM 16, 2014
Oil on board, 36 x 24 in.
Photo: L.A. Louver

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Rebecca Campbell, DIG, 2013
Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 in.
Photo: L.A...


Additional Information

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pp. 138-141
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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