Edinburgh Festival Day 4: Something happened: 'Terrible things' have been the making of the work of figurative artist Steven Campbell. As he tells Iain Gale

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The Independent Culture
'I KNEW if I succeeded it would be OK but if I didn't it would be the most incredible cock-up'. Steven Campbell, leader of the Scottish figurative revival, has staked his entire career on one show; and he knows it. It's now a decade since Campbell, 40 this year and the subject of a new monograph, broke on the scene, with fellow graduates from the Glasgow School of Art, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Peter Howson. Around us hangs his work from the last two years; huge paintings and innovatory collages exploring the darker side of the human condition. The merest glance at these reveals a change from the work with which Campbell made his reputation. What happened?

'Life shat on me. That's what happened. Terrible things happened. My brother died and I got sued. I was getting killed from the inside and the outside.'

It's not quite the response one might have predicted from the bright young hope of the Glasgow school. But Campbell has never been predictable. 'I didn't believe in anything anymore. I wanted to start again.' His way back into painting was through collage. 'I started cutting wee pieces of string on my knees. Just to think of nothing. The images which came out have a beauty. I try to make everything look beautiful.' This is another surprise. Fear, cruelty, a sinister malevolence have been Campbell's trademarks; but beauty? 'My work's often unpleasant but its beauty saves it. It restores humanity to it.'

The power of formal beauty to transform a scene of horror is evident in Campbell's recent painting The Dream of St Sebastian. 'I did this because we live in violent times. Everyone wants to read about violence. St Sebastian is the hero of our times. He's beautiful and he adores violence.' With the Saint's perforated torso echoing those of a thousand Renaissance prototypes and the sinking boat behind him Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, this is far from Campbell's earlier works, which were laden with tongue-in-cheek references to Foucault. These new paintings are ambitious, complex allegories, full of pathos, gravitas and genuine scholarly allusion. For all his plain talk, Campbell cannot disguise the depth of his erudition. His Dead Man's Cocktail Party fuses an Ernst-like Surrealism with an apotheosis worthy of 18th century history painting. 'It's old fashioned, but it's about our time. I don't get particular about what's happening in the world. But it's on your mind.'

Unlike Howson or Currie, Campbell has never been 'political', but even in the rural seclusion of his Stirlingshire studio, he cannot escape contemporary tragedy. 'I can't sleep so I make myself this huge vodka. The wind's lashing and the rain's coming down and out it comes like a beacon from hell: this horrible news late at night. I sit for half an hour and then get up and do work in 25 minutes that during the day would take four or five hours.'

In this way Campbell completed the show's tour de force, Painting in Defence of Migrants, a threnody to the refugees of the world from Bosnia to Kurdistan. The work's formal precedent lies in the golden age of Venetian painting. 'This is Titian - of course you can't get close to him, he's so great a painter. It's about people wandering down a hill because the roads are being watched. So the birds come to help them and they become the hunted so the people can rest.'

Standing in the presence of this huge painting, the full stretch of Campbell's ambition, you realise that he's pulled it off. But, like all great art, only just. He knows it: 'If I'd just put a bit more into it, it would have been a complete cock-up: too hopeful. A bit like Disney.' That's the tightrope that Campbell treads, walking like his 18th-century predecessors, such as Alexander Runciman and James Barry, between the grand tradition and cartoon fantasy. He gives a deliberate nod to the latter in several of the new paintings, which feature Pinocchio. Campbell has always found an alter- ego in his works, and his use of the boy-puppet, the personification of vulnerability, reflects newly-exposed facets of his art and character.

'I'm vulnerable. I'm scared to go to an opening in case somebody shits on me again. Well, why should artists be bloody happy? It's not all bad though. If I know that these last two-and-a-half years of hard work mean something to me then that's all right.'

Steven Campbell, Talbot Rice Art Centre, University of Edinburgh, Old College, South Bridge, to 11 Sept.

'Steven Campbell' by Duncan Macmillan is published by Mainstream, pounds 9.99.

(Photograph omitted)