San Francisco

Jim Campbell, Exploded Flat 2, 2017, aluminum, LEDs, custom electronics, 48 x 72 x 4 1/2". Photo: David Stroud.

Jim Campbell, Exploded Flat 2, 2017, aluminum, LEDs, custom electronics, 48 x 72 x 4 1/2". Photo: David Stroud.

Jim Campbell

Jim Campbell, Exploded Flat 2, 2017, aluminum, LEDs, custom electronics, 48 x 72 x 4 1/2". Photo: David Stroud.

The phenomenology of perception goes electronic in Jim Campbell’s work. His signature homemade, high-tech fabrications include LED projectors, multiple-exposure photographs, diffusion screens, and moving images superimposed with treated Plexiglas. Titled “Far Away Up Close,” this exhibition featured fifteen works from the past year that presented viewers with either too much visual data or not enough, laying bare the work involved in seeing.

Installed at the show’s entrance was Data Transformation 1, a video rear-projected by more than a thousand LED lights onto a translucent Plexiglas screen. The video shows a stream of shadowy grisaille figures emerging from the right side of the screen in a steady march toward the left. About midway across, the figures start to break up—an effect of Campbell’s screen design, which increases the spacing between the individual LEDs from right to left. The growing gaps between the lights also augment the contrast between light and dark, with the LEDs taking on various brilliant hues before yielding to total darkness at the left edge of the screen. By removing one form of visual information (resolution) and adding another (color) at the same time, Campbell mesmerizes the viewer with a constantly shifting scene.

The subject of this first video would have remained elusive had it not been placed in context with other works exploring similar themes. In Splitting the Crowd, for instance, hundreds of one-inch black squares cantilevered a few inches out from the wall, each projecting tiny beams of colored light back onto the wall’s white surface. At the center of the installation these LED projectors were densely packed and emitted a constant stream of light, while at the edges the LEDs became increasingly sparse and flickered on and off. From up close, these material mechanisms dominated the viewer’s vision, but from twenty paces away, the central cluster of projections resolved into a coherent cinematic image: a current of walking figures moving toward the camera before literally splintering into glittering fragments of color at either side of the frame. While the footage was never in full focus, the viewer was just able to discern pink pussy hats being worn by many of the figures, revealing the work as incorporating a recording of one of the women’s marches that erupted nationwide during the presidential inauguration this past January.

Fragments of embodied political ideals surfaced elsewhere: sometimes subtly, as in the flashes of hot pink that punctuated other LED works, including Scattered 12x (Women’s March on Washington) and Exploded Flat 1 and 2; at other times explicitly, as in Women’s March on Washington 1 and 3, light box–mounted photomontages of the titular demonstration. The photographic candor of the latter was almost garish in comparison to the LED compositions, as if the artist ultimately didn’t trust the viewer to figure out what the subject matter was on her own.

Indeed, the human brain ably fills in gaps between sensations, images, and words. Campbell nodded to the fact that this is not just an Information Age skill with a series of photographs of ancient Roman and Byzantine mosaic portraits (“Mosaic Study”) viewed through diffusion screens. Seen from the front, the faces appear in pleasant soft focus, belying the fact that they are made from numerous tesserae that were plainly visible when one peered behind the screen. Here, Campbell’s reference to antique visual forms highlighted our intrinsic ability to create comprehensive knowledge from shards of sensory data.

A visual discourse on distributed perception, Campbell’s show raised an urgent query posed by contemporary culture: How does technology—which increasingly fills our perceptual gaps with ever more high-resolution, on-demand data—impact the brain-body system? This question is especially pressing in the artist’s adopted hometown of San Francisco, where a widespread belief that all emergent technologies are good threatens to eclipse a long-standing culture of intellectual diversity and grassroots organizing. Campbell himself is slated to install a work similar to Splitting the Crowd on the exterior of the still-under-construction Salesforce Tower—the San Francisco headquarters of a data-driven marketing company and one of the tallest buildings on the West Coast. Let’s hope whatever Campbell produces for the structure will similarly serve as a reminder that the more closely we are hyperlinked to each other, the more drastically we may be cut off from our own lives.

Elizabeth Mangini