Video artist explored perception vs. reality

In BMA's reinstalled gallery, a pioneering work is less mysterious, still unsettling

Object Lesson

August 28, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Step into the gallery at the Baltimore Museum of Art that houses artist Peter Campus' video, Three Transitions, and what you see is a very ordinary looking guy -- who turns out to be the artist -- patting makeup on his face.

Or, at least, that's what it looks like at first glance. But after a few seconds, the mural-scale black-and-white video image on the wall gets distinctly weird -- a game of "Watch This Man Disappear."

It's one of the BMA's recent acquisitions, and it's on view for the first time in Baltimore as part of what will eventually be a thoroughgoing reinstallation of the museum's New Wing for Contemporary Art.

The first stage of the reinstallation was begun this summer by the BMA's senior curator for contemporary art, Darsie Alexander, a former curator in the museum's prints, drawings and photographs department who was appointed to her newly created post earlier this year.

As part of the reinstallation, Alexander is retaining the museum's emphasis on abstraction and minimalism while highlighting the various forms of conceptual art that succeeded those movements.

"The BMA has tremendous strengths," Alexander says. "With our painting and sculpture collections, our particular angle has tended toward the more abstract -- minimalism being a highlight."

But during the 1960s, Alexander notes, things started to shift. "Artists became less interested in abstraction than with art centered on an idea," she explains. "My long-term goal is to stretch the collection, drawing on existing strengths but also challenging expectations."

Campus' video is a prime example of the just the sort of challenge Alexander has in mind.

Here's what happens: Wherever the man in the video's fingers touch his face, his skin seems to dissolve like soapsuds in a bubble bath; you can see right through the hole that's left.

But instead of muscle and bone underneath, the artist's face appears again in the gap created by his fingers. It's as if Campus were erasing one face only to reveal yet another, nearly identical one, just below the surface of the original image.

In another of the video's three "transitions," viewers watch as the artist seems to cut into a life-size image of himself with a pair of scissors -- and then walk through it.

In the third "transition," Campus seems to set a similar life-size image of himself on fire.

You know all three of these performances involve some kind of "trick" photography -- and, in fact, when Campus, a pioneering figure in video art, created the piece in 1973, it was considered to be on the cutting edge of technology.

Even today, the piece remains oddly unsettling, though many more people nowadays can probably figure out how it was done.

(The effect, similar to the illusion created when a TV weatherman stands before a satellite view of a moving storm, is based on the camera's inability to record certain shades of blue.)

"These are captivating documents, really very complex pieces that ask the viewer to look through several simultaneous realities at once," Alexander says.

"On the one hand, [Campus] was investigating the properties of video as a relatively new medium," she adds. "At the same time, the work is psychologically very powerful, since the image he investigates and often destroys is his own. The work raises questions about identity, self-expression and perceptual dislocation ... it suggests that we are all engaged in some form of constant metamorphosis, changing how we look and act."

Campus, who was born in 1937 and lives in New York, is still active as an artist, though he remains best known for his experiments with projected images in the 1960s.

Much of his work from that period focused on how individuals perceive themselves in relation to the physical space around them, and on how video can both accentuate and distort our perceptions of reality.

Three Transitions was originally created for television station WGBH in Boston, which sponsored a number of works by experimental video artists at a time when the field was still largely uncharted territory.

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