New York

Peter Campus

The careful thoughtfulness that characterizes Peter Campus’s work lies at the very base of the innate possibilities of his medium. Each successive Campus exhibitions can be seen as another step in the process of adjusting and refining the elements of his electronic projections. Although each element is a richly laden term in itself, Campus’s technologically complex participatory/figurative installations become a highly interdependent system. For example, sharpening the projected video picture means constricting the size of the image, which in turn changes the scale of the spatial scheme, which in turn curtails the movement and position of the participant. The viewer’s physical situation, which triggers the projection of her own image, is finally limited to a rigid standstill in a single privileged spot.

Because of the problems in tampering with his systems, along with the fact that the era of the Nauman-Sonnier-Oppenheim type of participatory body art with a technologically constructed angle seems to be bygone and changed, Campus’s recent direction is not surprising. Last year at the Whitney he abandoned the viewer and her projected image for prerecorded tapes of heads, but there he still retained an aggressive high-tech hardware profile, the video projectors with their compact military elegance.

His new show is a minimal-tech installation. The totally darkened gallery holds three slide projectors in a barren and simple theatrical continuum. Humming continuously, the machines project three colossal floor-to-ceiling images of faces, one per wall. The fourth wall is without a picture, like the architectonic component of the dark void, reserved for the viewer as some sort of psychological support, a reminder that she is there as the audience.

The larger-than-film-screen size of these high-contrast black and white photo projections and the highly dramatic lighting on the faces are close to cinematic effects of the horror-movie kind. Sharply lit areas seem to compress a woman’s face to the likeness of a skull, while diagonal zones of shadow dissect the frontal portrait of a man. Bright photons light up fragments of skin, while the more expressive features, like eyes or lips, are drenched in shade, merging into the dark background, the continuous void from which these portraits arise. The work oozes emotionalism. In fact to call it “projection” is a double entendre pointing to an important aspect of Campus’s concerns: it refers to the form/medium as well as the projection of psyche through faces; projected light and shade mingle with projected and withheld emotions.

The human face is both reservoir and chart of emotions. Using Polaroid film, Campus let the state of his subjects’ emotions evolve from picture to picture, always showing the Polaroid to the performers he works with before taking the next one, thus “building up” the image. The slides are made from the final selection of Polaroids. Campus emphasizes the performance quality of his images rather than their portraiture aspect. This is significant. Video and Polaroid, those instant tools of self-examination, reintroduced the figure into art in a manner different from the portraiture of the recent past—those stock Pop images of cardboard people from the mass media. Campus also de-individualizes the features of his subjects through his lighting, but he aims at a universal portrait of the inner state, using the human visage as an abstract of emotions.

The mural scale of these projections recalls monumental Abstract Expressionist painting the scale of which was influenced, in part, by the many mural projects of the ’30s and ’40s. Walking close to these images they dissolve into patches of light and dark energy fields, again somewhat like an Abstract Expressionist work. Campus’ ritualistic technological trappings have fallen away; slides and simple projectors seem nearly frail in the light of his earlier work. The tone of the installation is primitive and spiritual. These giant portraits recall the distinctly homocentric tone of the expressionist era—man in the center, in the dark.

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