BY Devika Singh in Reviews | 19 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

Barbara Kasten

ICA, Philadelphia, USA

BY Devika Singh in Reviews | 19 AUG 15

Barbara Kasten, Construct 32, 1986, Cibachrome, 102 x 76 cm

Barbara Kasten’s giant Polaroids and cibachromes speak to our digital age from an analogue past that feels incredibly close. While our contemporary nostalgia for obsolete gizmos and technological processes often attaches itself to tired retro references, Kasten’s exuberant photo constructions of the 1980s have the look of today. Her work appears resolutely aligned with 21st century sensibilities and has been embraced by a younger generation of artists.

These constellations were explored in the remarkable exhibition ‘Barbara Kasten: Stages’. Curated by Alex Klein and consisting mainly of previously unseen works, it was the first survey of the Chicago-based artist. The show traced Kasten’s multivalent career, starting with her fibre sculptures, a material she adopted while studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts under the Bauhaus-trained Trude Guermonprez, and that entered a new dimension after Kasten’s 1972 stay in Poland with artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. In the mid-1970s, Kasten’s work changed tack. It became more diagrammatic and rational as the artist dedicated herself to the photographic medium. Some of the most intriguing works in the exhibition stem from this transitional period. Among them, Amalgam Untitled 79/9 (1979) is based on an enlargement from a negative, overlaid with a photogram and, finally, painted over. Part photo, part drawing, the print sits at the intersection between sculpture and photography, indebted to avant-garde figures such as László Moholy-Nagy.

In 1979, Kasten started her ‘Constructs’ series. Here, superfluous things made of fibreglass, Perspex and plaster, sourced from the Hollywood film industry and from hardware stores lean, slant and topple over each other. Props and backdrops play the leading roles, while spellbinding rays of light and moiré patterns coalesce on the picture plane. Kasten was not part of the male dominated light and space circle, but the experimental art of 1970s California resonates throughout her work. In her constructs, shafts of light and fluorescent techno colours saturate the composition. But the props are actually colourless; the bright yellows, blues and pinks are all added through lighting and reflection.

Kasten’s photography may be without a narrative, but it is not devoid of psychology. This is especially evident in her ‘Architectural Sites’ series from the mid-1980s, for which she turned her camera to locations of cultural and economic exchange, first financial centres and then museums. Take Architectural Site 17, August 29, 1988 (1988) shot at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The photograph deconstructs and then reconstructs the architectural landmark of Richard Meier. Spliced between two parts of a balcony, the work repositions within the space of the photograph a neoclassical sculpture from the museum collection. A similar disorienting effect is achieved in Architectural Site 8, December 21, 1986 (1986), a low-angle shot of Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School enhanced with multicolour effects and punctuated by what appear to be triangular-shaped cut outs. At first sight it is difficult to believe that such images do not rely on some form of manipulation. But nothing is faked. Kasten’s images are the climax of a long drawn-out process of preparation, involving the scouting of locations, test shoots, the hiring of a film crew to illuminate the building and strategically place massive mirrors. The final shoot takes place over the course of one night and, in the end, only one or two carefully staged images survive.

More recently, Kasten returned to studio constructions, working this time without colour. While her practice will surely keep on evolving, she seems to have come full circle. Reminiscent of her early cyanotype prints (‘Photogenic Paintings’, 1974–76), and bearing the mark of Russian constructivism, Kasten’s recent works play with transparent glass rather than reflection. These abstractions pare her work back to the bare minimum of material: light and shadow. Like the younger generation of artists she is now associated with, Kasten’s expansive cross-media practice reflects on illusion and optical reality. This exhibition made a brilliant case for Kasten as a unique link between the European avant-gardes that influenced postwar art education in the United States and contemporary post-disciplinary practice.