The classic story about trompe l'oeil involves an ancient Greek competition to see who could create the most illusionistic painting; when the first artist unveiled his ultra-realistic painting of grapes, birds swept down to peck at his canvas. The second artist then produced his own painting, cloaked in fabric. The bird-conniver reached to pull his rival's drapery aside, discovering with no small humiliation that the cloth was a mere painting.
After seeing her expectation-usurping installation, I Can't Quite Place It, one suspects that if Beth Campbell had participated in this ancient contest of eye-foolery, she might have held an empty frame before a pile of artfully arranged fruit, and convinced the audience that her canvas was the most realistic of all.
I Can't Quite Place It is a disorienting hall of mirrors, at least on a conceptual level: An arrangement of IKEA-ish furniture is reflected and multiplied into the gallery space by a complex grid of large, hanging mirrors. It's hard to discern what's actual furniture and what's a reflection—the scene appears to double back and reflect its own reflections, mirrored elevator-style. Savvy viewers will be reminded of conceptual mirror-play by artists like Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, and Leandro Erlich.
Less than entirely savvy myself, it took a minute to realize that my own reflection wasn't showing up. The (non-vampiric) truth of Campbell's installation revealed itself: There's not a single mirror involved. The artist constructed the same scene 11 times, fastidiously reversing the arrangements as necessary and inverting prop placement (including weathered copies of The Other Side of Me—ha!) to brain-duping effect.
The edges where I "saw" mirror panes converging at right angles? They're merely translucent rods that, upon close inspection, don't look at all like the effect created by abutted mirrors. But if your eyes register "mirror," your brain dutifully sketches in the details to fulfill that vision; it's the reason moviegoers supposedly leapt out of harm's way at screenings of The Great Train Robbery in 1903.
In this era of groundbreaking computer imagery and the "uncanny valley," Campbell pulls back the curtain on the gullible mechanics of optical perception. We may be too smart to fall for ordinary smoke-and-mirrors, but our brains can still be fooled—in this case, by foregoing trickery altogether.