Posted on 01 October 2014.
Untitled (6th Avenue), 2014, 1,440 4-color LEDS, custom electronics, sandblasted glass, 43 x 63 x 18 1/2"
People who work in computer animation and robotics often use the term “uncanny valley” to describe a peculiar gulf in human responses to their work. For example, if you create an animation or a robotic object that appears too realistic, viewers reject it. Make one that’s more obviously fake and they accept it, “flaws” notwithstanding. The video works of engineer-turned artist Jim Campbell operate within a similar dynamic.
Campbell uses LED lights to project blurry, low-resolution images onto walls and onto topographic reliefs made of carved resin, the contours of which are determined by gray-scale values of stills plucked from the videos. Some of these phenomenological puzzles demonstrate what we already know about the brain’s ability to derive meaning from optical fragments. By contrast, his most compelling works rely on those same reflexes to transform mundane footage – home movies of children playing, pedestrians in Manhattan, waves crashing and swimmers — into near-mystical experiences.
Home Movies (Contradiction), 2014, 1,064 LEDs, custom electronics, 66 x 76 x 3"
Home Movies (Contradiction) falls into the first category. It consists of 24 black bars containing LEDs aimed at a wall; they extend out about six inches, forming a window-bar enclosure that, when viewed from the side, resembles a stripe painting made of neon tubing. Seen frontally the bands appear to dissolve as your eyes focus on the projected images. They move in fits and starts. At a standstill they’re unreadable. In motion they reveal recognizable imagery: swimmers and motorcyclists, for example. This flipping back and forth between incoherence and fidelity demonstrates how easily we isolate signal from noise and how the optic nerve, in concert with the brain, constructs meaning out of apparent chaos.
Untitled (6th Avenue) issues a more interesting challenge. Here a New York street scene – people, cars and taxis – is projected onto panes of sandblasted glass, each suspended from the ceiling at different angles relative to the wall and each other. The effect of fracturing a moving picture in this manner falls somewhere between Cubism, Frank Stella’s shaped canvases and the multi-camera films of David Hockney. Watching beckons us to become hyperaware flâneurs, capable of parsing multiple realities within the cacophony of the urban daydream.
Topography Reconstruction (Wave), 2014
Where the exhibition takes on a magical tinge is with Home Movies Pause (David). Like the vertical band piece, this one throws us temporarily off balance with its electrical apparatus: a grid of wall-facing LEDs. Again, our follow-the-motion instinct kicks in, refocusing our gaze on what’s between the lines: a succession of shadow shapes (of families and frolicking children) that quickly merge into one big luminous dreamscape, like a filmic version of late Monet when he was half-blind painting water lilies. Regardless of whether you identify with idyllic scenes flashing before you, you may feel yourself regressing to the gaga state of an infant, dazzled by the primal sensations of shape, color and movement.
In Light Topography (Jane’s Pool), Campbell takes a different tack. He achieves an almost hallucinatory level of clarity by mounting single LEDs on the tips of variable-length dowels. Set perpendicular to the wall, they wink off and on, like electronic fireflies, moving in a pointillist swarm to form a negative image of a woman swimming across deep space. Less dramatic, but equally riveting, is Topography Reconstruction (Wave). It measures a scant 18 x 23 x 4 inches, and consists of a resin-cast seascape laid atop a film projection of breaking surf. It emits a dull light whose flickering, shadowy contours come closer to re-creating the quality of the wave-watching experience than any work of art I’ve seen. It does everything but emit bird cries and the briny smell of salt air and, like the film-activated sculptures of Tony Oursler, it stopped me in my tracks.
That Campbell, the engineer, holds several patents for high-definition TV comes as no surprise. That he would use that know-how to explore HD’s polar opposite – liminality — strikes me as spectacularly ironic: proof of how an artist can turn a familiar technology to unfamiliar ends, some of which come close to taking us out of this world while at the same time reminding us of how tethered to it we really are.
–DAVID M. ROTH