Visual Arts

Flash Back

Jim Campbell's advantage as an artist is that he wasn't trained as one. Hatched as an electrical engineer, he made the leap from pragmatism to poetry on his own, bringing with him a wariness about the limitations of digital media.

This caution has served him well. As the art world has filled with technoholics drunk on the digital ease of living hand-to-mouse, Campbell has soberly pursued ideas. The result is the kind of visual intelligence seen in "Ambiguous Icons: Works in Low Resolution," an eight-work exhibition at the ASU Computing Commons Gallery.

There's no mistaking the retro look of these works. Made from panels of blinking and flickering LED lights, they're digitally controlled throwbacks to those analog days when bulb-powered signage -- think old Times Square and Las Vegas -- was considered tops in electronic visual fun.

There's nothing extravagant about Campbell's light show. One small work is simply a board of white bulbs arranged to resemble a blurry black-and-white portrait of Harry Nyquist, a 1920s pioneer of electronic digital transmissions. Another is a small multicolored display delivering glowing reflections from views of a fire, a highway overpass and a walkway.

The remaining six pieces -- which go by the name "motion and rest" -- are grids of red lights blinking on a dark background. From close at hand, the patterns of darks and reds appear almost abstract. But from a few steps back, they show the dark silhouette of a person walking across the middle of the screen.

Campbell used a digital video of people in motion to create these shadow-play movies in black and red. It's a high-contrast world, with little shading of the figures and surroundings. The lights occasionally flicker or dim in spots to suggest vague details of the passing landscape. But there's nothing to clue viewers to the identity, gender or age of the figures themselves. All are anonymous silhouettes, slouching or scooting along -- as if Georges Seurat's dense charcoal drawings of figures had come to cinematic life in a red-light district.

Campbell isn't interested in amorphous abstraction, though he dabbles in it by dissolving the Wizard of Oz-like portrait of Nyquist into a flurry of whites and grays. He seems to be interested instead in how the mind makes sense of images. To aid the process, he placed a sheet of frosted glass in front of the Nyquist portrait, diffusing the lights into a more readable impressionistic blur. The gallery provides a sheet of Plexiglas so that viewers can do the same with the other works in this show.

This blurred and pixelated world is a far cry from the high-definition imaging Campbell occasionally tinkers with in his life as an engineer. His use of analog-style lights also runs against the current tide of "all digital, all the time."

But this inversion of progress is nothing new to the arts. We know that the arrival of innovative media and tools -- from paints to printing presses, cameras to metals and plastics -- has led to cultural watersheds. Yet those watersheds sometimes have come because technical advances in one medium have inspired artists to reimagine the meaning and value of other, older ones.

The advent of photography, for example, helped to free painting from its day job of representation, nudging artists toward abstraction. It also brought new ways to capture the look of that which is real. Eadweard Muybridge's 1880s sequential photographs of animal locomotion revealed the young medium's power to freeze, instant by instant, never-before-seen images of animals and people in action. The great 19th-century American realist Thomas Eakins used this new technology to study and then paint images of athletes in motion.

In an odd way, Campbell's trudging silhouettes fall somewhere between the old artistic ambition to freeze images and the more modern one to set them in motion. His route to this in-between ground has been fairly interesting. His earlier works, including a video installation at America West Arena, took the interactive approach of arousing viewer involvement by capturing and replaying their images on life-size video columns. Like other artists, he initially was sold on the idea that interactivity was a matter of engaging viewers by making them feel as though they had a hand -- not to mention a face and a body -- in a work of art.

But Campbell's view of interactivity began to change in the 1990s. He did an installation in which images of passing viewers appeared to burst into flames. The work was supposed to be a dark contemplation about mental illness. But he realized that the images were much more entertaining than disturbing.

He wondered how he could use digital tools and tricks to involve viewers in more than simple antics. So he connived to capture their images when they couldn't see themselves. The works at America West Arena lean a bit in that direction. The point was to frustrate viewers in their attempts to control the image and, in a sense, to fulfill their desires.

"Ambiguous Icons" leaps even further from earlier washed-up notions of interactivity. What it offers, really, is the kind of viewer involvement that has long been fundamental to art: the commitment of the mind to making sense of the things it sees. This view might seem more at home in an epoch of fixed images, when art studios smelled like turpentine and linseed oil rather than hot wires and circuit boards. But it's the route Campbell apparently thinks will lead him and his digital media back to the future.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow