Comprising five graphite drawings and a single-screen video installation, Bonnie Camplin's 'How We Used to Live' at first viewing presents a cool and seemingly detached mise en scène. In the drawing Occipital Lobe (2003) a woman - the artist's mother - slightly boss-eyed and sporting a 1970s proto-Punk haircut, stares out dispassionately past the viewer and off into the distance. Sat next to this work is an image of Camplin as a young woman decked out in outsized baseball cap and torn T-shirt and carrying what appears to be a doll's head attached to a stick. Presented on lined paper from a school exercise book, this second image - The Power of One (2002) - is a far from virtuoso performance; it feels laboured, almost naive. Yet as an image it speaks of youthful days lost in moments of personal theatre dressed ready to walk the street as if it were a stage.
Are the drawings simply nostalgic - mawkish, even - or are we witnessing an elegiac poem drawn across the gallery walls? The primary content of these drawings, the raw material of family relations, encourages us to try and read the mother's non-committal gaze. Perhaps this is more a Freudian melodrama from yesteryear, a visual essay in attachment theory. The occipital lobe is the part of the brain that deals with visual processing. It navigates and maps physical relations as well as the emotional content displayed in another's features. (It's difficult not to entertain the distant call of half-remembered, half-digested pop psychology while looking at these works.)
Camplin's world represents a shifting surface of connections, a charismatic and self-absorbed autobiography played out in HB pencil, the dreaded weapon of choice for the teenage artist and a medium abhorred by the secondary school art teacher, whose desperate attempts to introduce pictorial depth fall on deaf ears. There is something obsessive about Camplin's drawings, like adolescent renderings depicting a favoured hero or heroine. The difference here is that, rather than scribbled homages to David Beckham or Ian Curtis, Camplin's absent family are the ones lovingly rendered and doted on.
Positioned between the drawings, a video plays on a flat-screen monitor. In Cancer (2004) we see an unknown professor presenting the facts of cancer and stem cell theory in deadpan manner. Suddenly the image distorts, rips at the seams, and his skull disappears, leaving only floating eyeballs as hundreds of pixelated figures pour down the screen in a visual mimesis of the impact of cancer cells within the body. Bone, brain, breast, thyroid, lymphoma, metastases and sarcomas: perhaps cancer in all its stubbornly enduring biological fact is the true villain of the piece.
'84 (2003) consists of a Camplin family portrait, presumably taken from a staged holiday photograph. Three figures, two girls and a man dressed in Victorian costume, stare solemnly from the frame. The mother of the family is noticeably absent; a possible clue to her whereabouts lies in the companion work '74 (2003), in which three naked women - 'sky-clad' in Wicca parlance - perform a mysterious incantation or ritual as the central figure with hands clasped is lifted from the ground. Second-wave feminism in the 1970s had the knock-on effect of promoting Wicca: a belief system that placed the great Mother Earth Goddess at its centre, appealing to the obdurate sensibilities of the female movement. As divorce rates soared throughout the decade, so did the followers of Wicca.
The exhibition finds its gravitas in the year 1984, the year of Camplin's flowering teen sexuality and, perhaps, the loss of her mother. Rather than draw upon a vast personally absent image bank the artist presents the facts of her life as she sees them. Far from being sensational, the work presents a subdued ripple of personal history, the strands of a life spun quietly between its key images. Who or what are the hero and villain of the piece? Is it the absent mother, the present father, or cancer, that creeping stealer of life? Camplin's personal storyline falls between melodrama and tragedy. It appears that the work's dénouement, or rather its overarching narrative, ends in catastrophe. Whether or not the effect is redemptive and cathartic in the Greek tradition of Aristotle is something we can only guess at. For, rather than being a question answerable by us, it is something that only the primary audience, Camplin herself, can truly answer.
In the drawing Hope Sat Like Patience on the Rocks (2004) a teenage Camplin sits expectantly on a slope of energetically rendered boulders. She looks out from behind an 1980s wedge-cut fringe towards a passing plane. It's an image of youthful self-absorption and the desire for escape. It is a life suggested in the shimmering gossamer surface of mid-range tones and the laboured scribble of HB pencil: a wilfully anti-theoretical and beguilingly voodoo presentation.