San Francisco

Jim Campbell

Though much current art purports to confront the “liminal,” Jim Campbell’s wall-mounted electronic works successfully address this state in more ways than one. Campbell’s dual professions—computer-hardware engineer and internationally recognized artist—place him at the threshold (or limen) between two profoundly different worlds. Pursued from this unusual viewpoint, his continuing investigation of extremely low-resolution imagery functions as an exploration of the furthest margins of visual perception, revealing how much—or how little—information is required for comprehension.

For several years, Campbell has been experimenting with feeding a digital-video signal through a chip that controls a rectangular field of LEDs, sometimes placing translucent Plexiglas in front of the tiny lights to create a screen on which the moving image may be seen. In Bus Stop, 2003, the artist arrives at a new variation on this form by adhering a long-exposure photographic transparency to the Plexiglas. This precisely detailed image, of an anonymous city street, becomes the backdrop for a drifting procession of vague black shadows, ghostly images of passersby captured by Campbell’s video camera. As with his earlier work, the most minimal of cues here make it possible to recognize these ghosts as figures in motion. They are at once there and not there, inhabiting the border zone between presence and absence.

Other works in the show examine this nebulous area by creating an unusual relationship between proximity and comprehension. In Tourists at the World Trade Center Site, 2005, the fence in front of the crater where the towers once stood—a spot where people pause, often taking pictures—serves as the setting for a short video loop. Campbell has manipulated the resolution of this sequence, however, making it possible to figure out what is going on only from a vantage point on the other side of the gallery. Like a canvas by Chuck Close, the further you are from it, the “better” you see it. In this work, the experience of actual distance reminds us of the way in which catastrophic events recede in their incomprehensibility to memory’s safe remove. In Wave Modulation Variation, 2005, another work with similar technical parameters, rolling walls of water eventually slow to a stop, momentarily becoming a seemingly nonrepresentational field of cloudy gray marks. The waves are beautiful and mysterious yet, ultimately, neither as compelling nor as challenging as the drift of people in front of the absent towers.

The newest works in the show, technologically speaking, are also the most difficult. Three large lightboxes feature images of protests that took place at the 2004 Republican Convention. In each one, several high-resolution video stills have been digitally superimposed in successive translucent layers, yielding an elegant, fractured tapestry that collapses into meaningless detail. Viewing these works is uncomfortable, as there is no place to stand from which the images either resolve themselves into recognizable scenes or solidify into the surreal landscapes they suggest from a distance. This difficulty seems to suggest that even if we could see what was going on more clearly, the event portrayed would not be any more “real.”

Maria Porges