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Focus Factors

Artists Jim Campbell and Misch Kohn call for close regard

By Michael S. Gant

TWO CURRENT SHOWS reward a viewer's close attention--even a bit of squinting makes a difference. At the Palo Alto Art Center, Jim Campbell, a high-tech new-media innovator, shows a array of light- and motion-generated pieces in the gallery's cool gray, low-lit space.

Campbell works extensively with grids of LEDs, programming matrices of red and white lights to wink on and off in complex patterns determined by external sources. In the Wavelengths series, five panels play back footage of crashing waves in digital on-off flux. The images change depending upon your distance and concentration. At first, they appear to be indistinct formations of white vapors; after standing back and narrowing your gaze, they resolve themselves into combers repeatedly striking the shore. The Motion and Rest series converts the repetitive gaits of walkers into outlines of darkness defined by the surrounding red lights. These shambling forms look more like shadow patterns than recognizable figures until you take several steps back.

Even more ghostly are the faint figures in the Library . For this piece, Campbell videotaped a day's worth of pedestrian activity and condensed the visual information. He then projects it on an LED panel behind a photogravure of the building. The immutable columns and stones of the library are inhabited by floating chimera, translucent gray wisps traveling across the sidewalk and up and down the stairs. They are like the souls of all the people who ever moved through the time coordinate on the library's space-time axis.

A different kind of concentration takes place in the Illuminated Averages series. Condensing several minutes of video, Campbell fashions visual "averages" of recorded events into single images in light boxes. Some 2 1/2 minutes of cycling, for instance, result in a blur of color anchored on the two circles of the bike wheels. More ambitious is Campbell's reduction of entire movies into a single image, or metaframe. The Wizard of Oz comes across as a blob of pastel pink--like a luminous abstraction. Psycho reveals a few recognizable objects--a pitcher, a lamp, a phone--at the edges of a white flurry of simultaneity.

Although he worked in the more traditional media of prints, Misch Kohn (1916-2002), subject of an excellent retrospective at SJSU's Thompson Art Gallery, was also a tireless innovator. He followed up his wood engravings of the 1940s with an astonishing outpouring of techniques, including sugar-lift ground, aquatint etching, chine collé, embossing and collage--oftentimes combining all of them into single works filled with dynamic layerings of color and line.

As impressive as some of Kohn's later color pieces are, I found myself drawn to his magnificent large black-and white wood engravings of the late 1940s. Tiger (1949) showcases his skills in abundance. This fierce creature is caught in full profile, with his head turned balefully toward the viewer. Eddies and swirls of lines make up the animal's fur. Each patch of the tiger's coat is rendered with the intensity and inexorability of a whirlpool, drawing you into a world that becomes more abstract the longer you look. Kohn's tiger, like Blake's, burns very brightly.


Jim Campbell shows through April 25 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Rd., Palo Alto. Open Tuesday-Sunday (650.329.2366). Misch Kohn: A Life in Prints shows through April 9 at the Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery, One Washington Square, San Jose. Open Tuesday-Friday; closed for spring break March 29-April 2 (408.924.9328).


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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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