When it was featured above SFMOMA's atrium in 2011 and 2012, Jim Campbell's "Exploded Views" was such a hit that people would crowd onto the facing stairwell and jockey for the best viewing spot. (Yes, elbows would occasionally fly.) Campbell's work used a cascade of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to portray the quick, shadowy movement of mostly human forms. Since then, Campbell has cemented his reputation as one of the world's most acclaimed LED artists, exhibiting his art in China, Australia, and England, and completing big commissions from the San Diego International Airport and the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium. Among Campbell's current commissions is one for San Francisco's Central Subway, which will feature Campbell's work in the Union Square/Market Street Station.
To say Campbell's career is "red hot" is an understatement — which is why a new Campbell exhibit at Hosfelt Gallery is so welcome. "Tilted Plane" occupies an intimate space that, on the afternoon I went, held just a smattering of other art-goers. It's Campbell in a room of one's own — and what a room. First of all, it's dark. Very dark. And it's fronted by dark black mesh. Inside are rows of dimly lit bulbs hanging from the ceiling at different heights, creating the illusion of a downward-sloping plane. The bulbs contain LEDs, and every few seconds, a new section of lit bulbs quickly goes dark in random, repeating patterns that suggest things are flying overhead. I imagined bats. It was actually pigeons, Campbell says, that were his model for "Tilted Plane." Because the exhibit lets art-goers wander inside the room and practically touch the bulbs, the movement overhead is intensified — as if you're in the chamber of a mad scientist. Whether you're outside the mesh looking in or inside the room looking out, the experience is unique.
"When you look at it right when you walk in, maybe 20 feet before the mesh, there's more of a chance of understanding that it's birds flying," Campbell says. "Then, when you're inside, it's more about your peripheral vision, and it's more about feeling the birds flying around you. That's where the movement comes in. You feel the fluttering of the wings, for example."
Campbell's work can be compared to that of James Turrell, the MacArthur laureate and "light artist" whose exhibits are also about the complex relationship between space and light. (Turrell has a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 6 that's well worth visiting.) Like Turrell, Campbell wants to mesmerize people and prompt them to reconsider basic assumptions about their surroundings. But unlike Turrell, Campbell pinpoints assumptions about physical abilities. His earlier artworks were often film-based, and included one that asked art-goers to imagine themselves on fire, as if they were suffering from mental illness. Another project recorded art-goers passing by the camera and then played the image seconds later, as if the viewers had little control of their walking selves and were forced to "appear" in a delayed way. In a more recent work using LEDs, Campbell collaborated with San Francisco choreographer Alonzo King, showcasing King's dancers in images that — like "Exploded Views" at SFMOMA — were graceful explosions of black and white light.
"I compare my work a lot with James Turrell," Campbell says. "In a funny way, James Turrell deals more with space, and I'm more interested in dealing with time. One thing Turrell does almost from a scientific-perceptual perspective is that it makes a distinction between seeing and imaging. You're seeing his work, you're seeing the light, but there's nothing for your brain to image. And your brain keeps looking for that. That's something I'm very interested in — more of a self-experience versus an analytical experience."
Campbell, a San Francisco resident, has one of the art world's more unusual CVs. After graduating in 1978 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with degrees in electrical engineering and in mathematics, he moved to the Bay Area to be an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley. He made a nice living that way for 10 years. And that's how it could have stayed, until Campbell got restless and decided to pursue — at least part-time — art projects related to technology. Campbell had learned film and photography in college, so the leap wasn't that far-fetched. But it was a leap all the same, and at age 57, he realizes how different his life would have been if he'd stayed full time with electrical engineering.
"Twenty-five years ago, when I was doing this, there were few people who had a background in electronic engineering who were doing this," Campbell says. "With the whole do-it-yourself movement, there are people who are becoming more educated in the direction of electronics. So it's changing a lot right now."
While most of Campbell's works are off-limits to close inspection (at SFMOMA, people couldn't touch "Exploded Views"), "Tilted Plane" is much more immersive. It's also more abstract than his earlier works, including "Exploded Views."
"I've been on this gradual progression towards lower and lower res, if you will — to be closer to the border with abstraction," Campbell says. "And 'Tilted Plane' fits into that. More so than people, birds have this double movement — they're moving from point A to point B, but then their wings are flapping and moving 10 times faster than that. I used that movement for this work because the combination of those two things makes it a little more recognizable in almost a purely abstract form. Nothing else really moves that way."
And nothing else really resembles a Jim Campbell work. That's why his small exhibit at Hosfelt Gallery is a big opportunity to get up close and personal with Campbell's ideas of darkness and brightness.