New York

Peter Campus

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

In both the printed and the projected photographs shown here, from 1986 and ’87, Peter Campus pursues the theme of stone, “beautifully” and weirdly shaped by the sea’s touch. In the projected images the sea is missing; the eternal stone hangs, full of ineffable expressivity, like a planet suspended on a planetarium ceiling, the details of its luminous texture all the more mysterious for the vivid precision of their appearance (an effect that was intensified by the gallery installation, in which the images seemed to float on the walls of an otherwise completely darkened room). The projected images are especially disorienting because each stone is presented as pure “text”—that is, with no context except itself. In the prints, the stone is shown in the context of sea or shore, from which it rises ecstatically and mythically, as sacred and worshipable as the stone at Mecca. The shapes are infinitely variable, singular, and unfathomable. The stone seems to induce and concentrate a namelessly profound experience in its density. It is peculiarly sublime, for all its apparent specificity.

Whereas 19th-century American landscape painters signaled the immeasurable through dynamically open space, Campus signals it through dynamically closed space: the immeasurable is impacted in the stone. As in those earlier evocations of the sublime, we are in the realm of pure nature, present not as symbol yet nonetheless full of inexplicable if amoral import. It is as though Frederic Edwin Church had applied the principles of his landscape panoramas to a single fact of nature, which thereby became a cosmos in itself—eternity in a giant grain of sand. Campus monumentalizes a document of nature, making it ultimate beyond our wildest dreams, but with such literalness—as so completely itself—that it cannot be appropriated as a symbol, even though we are tempted to see in some of these ambiguous images our own “projections.” For instance, most people would read the configuration of shadowy abrasions and depressions in Murmur, 1987, as the features of a death’s-head.

Campus has shown us what photography can accomplish beyond the conventional task of representing the tangible with surgical exactitude, demonstrating that such exactitude is a myth that generates the illusion of tangibility. These photographs are not simply a reportorial mirroring of the rough and the smooth—in the English critic Adrian Stokes’ distinction—nor an imaginative investigation of their improvisational relations, but an example of the untrustworthiness of all perception at the very moment it occurs. Reality is given, but the very precision with which it is given reveals it to be an ingenuous illusion, disclosing it as deceptively solid but actually fluid.

Campus also does something more: he shows us how photography can be mastery of touch, and how this mastery carries with it the possibility of “possessing” space. This is not simply a matter of the surfaces that he articulates, almost as though they were caught in the act of abstracting themselves from the objects, but of the way his objects seem to abandon themselves to the camera, as though they want to be consummately “known,” consumed by its contemplative touch. These photographs are about the camera’s carnality—the way it “captivates” whatever it touches with its glance. Perception, finally, is a matter of overpowering the object of perception until it becomes a projection of the perceiver’s eros.

Reviewed by Donald Kuspit.