New York

Peter Campus

Strictly speaking, one needed just eighteen minutes to see all of Peter Campus’s recent exhibition at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, which contained six looped digital videos lasting less than three minutes each. Yet such a straightforward approach was both irrelevant and impossible, since the single events that each video depicts have no obvious beginnings or ends. As the title of the show, “time’s friction,” suggested, Campus was less interested in tracking durational time than in revealing and elaborating on the poetic pushes and pulls within it.

This is not to say that Campus hasn’t already also explored video’s inherent relationship to duration and process. A key figure in the history of the medium, he took it up in the late ’60s with particularly innovative aplomb, often exploiting its disturbing potential to depict both psychic and physical milieus in real time. But at the moment video hit what was arguably its apogee at the end of the ’70s, Campus took a deliberate hiatus from it and turned his attention toward the construction of apparent stasis, in the form of landscape photographs.

For nearly twenty years thereafter, Campus worked with a variety of photographic formats, from black-and-white to slide projected to digitally enhanced. In 1995, he returned to video (voicing some regret for having abandoned it in the first place) and began to merge the photograph’s defiance of time’s passing with video’s complicated embrace of it. His practice increasingly combined elements from the psychological terrain of his early video works with the physical landscapes that followed (strains perhaps not so unrelated, since Campus, after all, once remarked that a landscape is “a face inside out”). Such is the case with “time’s friction,” an exhibition that amounts to infinitely more than the sum of its parts.

Eschewing the current fashion for gigantism in both photography and video, Campus here opted for a vehement intimacy, filling the main space of the small gallery with five projected works and showing another isolated piece on a monitor around the corner. To say that the practicalities of installing contemporary video art are notoriously problematic would be an understatement. Elaborate soundproof viewing rooms have become the norm, as determined artists and curators attempt to set works apart from one another and avoid leakages of both sound and light. But Campus takes the opposite tack, subtly insisting that significant meaning is born in the correspondence between works and in the peripatetic body of the viewer who engages with them. In Campus’s installation, diminutive projectors set on low wooden tables cast small, digitally constructed images (which assumed the peculiar look of photographs—and sometimes paintings—in slow, graceful motion) onto white walls, while tiny speakers broadcast, at low level, individual sound tracks for each. Made up of a combination of music and ambient noise particular to each image, the aural components operated like so many instruments, and the overall effect was orchestral, if not in the usual sense.

The “content” of each work here could be summed up with a simple description that, while accurate, would also be completely insufficient: A bee gathers pollen from a flower; a seagull plunges into the sea; a bird glides through an impossibly blue sky; an old man walks a path; a boy plays on the beach; a lovely woman with heavy-rimmed glasses whispers. Ironically, it is perhaps by way of this lexical shortcoming that the richness of Campus’s work might be glimpsed, though never pinned down—how to describe the supplemental, experiential meaning that accrues? Suffice it to say that eighteen minutes came and went, and I was happily no closer to an answer.

Johanna Burton