Enraptured with new technology, video art often demands that viewers pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. This hasn’t always been the case: In the 1970s, Peter Campus, along with fellow pioneers Bruce Nauman and Gary Hill, made minimal, strikingly self-referential work that explored video’s unique properties as a broadcast medium and surveillance tool.
In this intriguing historical show, three of Campus’s major works from the 1970s and a series of related photographs are shown along with five new digital videos. It’s no surprise that Campus’s early work dominates, its considerable lo-fi charms spelling out his influence on artists as diverse as Bill Viola, Tony Oursler, and Paul Pfeiffer. In Three Transitions (1973), Campus layers footage of himself to create simple yet implausible gestures, more phenomenology than performance. He crawls through a gash in his own back, sloughs off his forehead to expose a fresh layer of skin, and sets his reflection on fire—all without wrinkling his brow.
More often than not, Campus’s meditations on the self are intimations of mortality. In a series of black-and-white Polaroid portraits from 1978, Campus captures his video actors in a vulnerable state of introspection. Less evocative are his recent videos, banal montages of humans in nature: footsteps on a wooded trail, figures gathering on a seaside cliff, the artist’s wife in gardening clogs. They languish on notebook-sized monitors, insufficiently allusive to pique philosophical interest yet too artful to pass for amateurism.
As Campus once observed, people tend to “walk into a video installation as though the equipment isn’t there.” Even in its maturity, the black box is not a perfect fit for the white cube. Campus remains one of few artists to have dealt with the medium’s full apparatus, the human behind the Wizard’s floating, disembodied head.