You'll never see a velvet Elvis at UCI's Beall Center—unless, perhaps, it is made entirely from live bees—and this is simultaneously comforting and terrifying. There's no safe here; your intellect, the arty part of your brain will be challenged (which, conversely, could be its own type of safety). And yet: some shows naturally do this more than others, like the Beall's latest exhibition, "Quantizing Effects: The Liminal Art of Jim Campbell," which debuted last year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It's a dark room with a bunch of lights and some sound—sure to make you bristle, if a Campbell's soup can was what you wanted—but as you investigate, the realm of what can be known expands in front of you, always leading. This is good.
Campbell, who holds degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering at MIT (making him smarter than you), works most notably with small LEDs—those round little bulbs that, as a UCI prof visiting the show agreed, resemble Lite-Brites (ouch!). He also uses assorted forms of opacity: glass and paper, upon which LEDs and projectors help produce various forms of motion. This sounds more complicated than it first appears; at a casual glance, "Quantizing" looks like the kind of show your seventh-grade science geek would have done—if he'd only thought of it.
Campbell begins here with a 2001 LED work, Running Falling Cut, the briefest shadow rendered in red LED bulbs, flickering on and off in sequence to make a man. He flits across the surface of the work—roughly the size of your bedroom TV—until your eye focuses on the bulbs and you realize he's not a man at all; he's just a loop. This, then, is the "quantizing" in the show title—its so-called "limiting . . . by mechanical rules"; but it is we, the humans, who feel reduced for not first having seen its duality.
Duality, multifacetedness and our abilities to see them inform much of the rest. One of Campbell's most rewarding series is his most recognizable—but ultimately, his most giving work is his most difficult (see below). The easiest to grasp begin with Hitchcock Psycho 2000, a ghostly, black-and-white atmospheric photo compilation created by a multiple exposure: printing every frame in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho atop every other in one space. It's amazing: every bad dream and vacant house in the world—with the serial killer oddly missing from the frame. All you really see are mundane household objects like a porcelain water pitcher in the foreground. The remainder of the series is almost as haunting—images of a bicyclist, a car and a Buddha statue set in the weeds; but rendered in color, it's as if someone turned on the lights.
They didn't. You're still in the dark, you realize, as the ghastly beep-boop-bipping of Self Portrait of Paul DeMarinis,2003 keeps echoing forth. It sounds like Shostakovich, but what the hell is it? By now you know it must mean something—but what? SelfPortrait is vertical lines of white dots, each appearing fuzzily on a frosted screen, as a corresponding tone plays from a microphone and a speaker connected to the screen. And it will outsmart you if you let it.
As a work of art, Self Portrait is near-impenetrable, but, Campbell says, it amounts to a reconstruction of Paul DeMarinis. First, he reduced DeMarinis' photo to a series of black-and-white dots—as it would appear in a newspaper. Then he recorded the man's voice and let (here's the mathematician at work) his lowest bass tones equal the black in the photo and the high pitches in his voice equal the white. Last, he looped it all together electronically, so that what you're hearing—and, to a lesser extent, seeing—is DeMarinis telling you what he looks like. In an entirely unique language; Campbell says the beeps and bips vary depending upon the noise of people in the room. People like you and me. We're not worthy.