Jim Campbell: Signal vs. noise at SFMOMA

A few months back I was showing some of my works-in-progress to a curator and he recommended I look into the work of Jim Campbell. Campbell’s work is very different than mine but it turns out that we have certain affinities.

So–finally–I made it up to SFMOMA, on my birthday. And what a wonderful present. Campbell’s work, entitled Exploded Views, hangs above the entryway to the museum. When you first encounter it, looking up at it, the piece looks to me nothing more than a bunch (that is to say, a thousand or more), blinking white lights hanging from wires of different length, randomly arranged in a large three dimensional rectangle.

Most of the little white lights are powered on at any one moment but each light blinks off haphazardly, occasionally forming a brief pattern or sense of movement, such as when a band of darkness crosses through the piece and then perhaps crosses back again. Quite naturally you try to see what sort of pattern there might be and though occasionally, if you watch for a while, something seems about to form, it really ends up being noise. You could easily convince yourself that the display contains no data–no imagery–at all and that the odd shapes and movements you see now and then are just artifacts of the mind’s quest for pattern.

However, you can also view the work from a higher elevation, head-on to the large side of the 3-D rectangle. SFMOMA’s upper floors are reached from a set of stairs that zig zag in and out up the side of the atrium. With each zag it reaches a small platform from which you can view the atrium–and the Campbell work–from a higher and higher elevation. The nice thing here is that once you go up the stairs you don’t emerge again into the atrium space until you are about twenty-five feet above the floor. In your approach, the new viewpoint doesn’t reveal itself so much gradually as all at once. And from this vantage point Campbell’s work is transformed.

It’s a video screen. A giant video screen, strangely low resolution, but a video screen nonetheless. Each light bulb is one pixel, from this view arranged in a rectangular grid. I watched boxers boxing and people walking to and fro. What was noise from below was clearly a image when viewed from the platform.

It’s much better to see it in person rather than to read about it but if you can’t get here you might wish to watch this video from opening night at SFMOMA:


The video was produced by the Hosfelt Gallery, which represents Campbell’s work. There is also a nice interview, produced by SFMOMA, of Campbell discussing his work:



Speaking of the Hosfelt Gallery, their YouTube channel is excellent, with well-done demonstrations of Campbell’s works and videos of the work of several other artists worth looking at and knowing about.

If you do visit SFMOMA soon be sure and set aside a few hours. Aside from the Campbell work there is an unexpectedly rewarding show on photography in Mexico, a single gallery devoted to their ongoing Picturing Modernity series (basically, images from SFMOMAs remarkeable collection, here including a half dozen from Robert Fenton and others lessor known from the beginnings of photographic time) as well as a solo show by Rineke Dijkstra. Dijkstra’s photos have always been interesting to me rather than compelling but this visit was my first time seeing her video work. One video in particular is exceptional: A young woman in Liverpool in front of the camera, white background, club music pounding in a muffled way on the soundtrack. A first she sort of stands there, not really waiting, not really bored. Then slowly she comes alive to the music. That transformation is fascinating.  (I did find a poor-quality video version of the work on Youtube. This version will give you a general sense of the work but unfortunately contains nothing of the magic of the original piece.)

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