PHILADELPHIA — Talking about the limitations of photography, painter David Hockney said that art “must deeply involve an observer whose body somehow has to be brought back in.” At the time, he was pessimistic about the medium’s possibilities.
Enter Barbara Kasten.
Kasten’s work looks like it’s from the desktop of a 21st-century new media artist, but she has been working for decades in the actual physical spaces of traditional photography. Instead of engaging with mass media and digital manipulation, her work is concerned with observing spaces, perspective, and light. In many ways it’s about bringing our bodies into the perception of spaces.
Kasten sets up highly charged interiors using modern buildings, mirrors, shadows, color, and lighting effects to create ambiguous architectures that are in flux. It’s frequently difficult to read the photos spatially and understand which thing is in front of the other. This ambiguous space isn’t about what is happening in the actual spaces; it’s about our perceptions and the uneasy connections between vision, reality, and construction. In Kasten’s work — which also includes sculpture, installation, and set design — to see something clearly requires feeling it out with our bodies. It requires sense memory.
Angular, graphic, and colorful, Kasten’s photographs from her most famous body of work, Construct, look like the 1980s because that’s when they were made. They are full of triangles and squiggles, geometric confetti, and high-key color. But far from being tools of a flat period style, the photos use these abstract elements to create spatial ambiguities that demand to be examined in a tactile way. When looking at Kasten’s work, it helps to remember Anni Albers’s advice: “We often look for underlying meaning of things while the thing itself is the meaning.”
When Kasten uses a hot pink light in “Architectural Site 17, August 29, 1988” (1988), for instance, we can trace the quality of that light as it turns a corner, mixes with a yellow light, and then disappears over a distance. In Photoshop, a gradient can be created without spatial meaning. In Kasten’s work, however, gradients reflect a material space. They describe something physical. Light mixes and diminishes through a real space. Light, filtered through a gel, is brighter and more colorful at the source and then slowly gets more neutral and disappears as it gets further away. It becomes not just artistic expression; it has an observable physical quality that comes with our experience of the real world beyond images. This is one reason why Stages, her retrospective currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, could be called one of this year’s best shows of contemporary abstract painting — despite the fact that it consists mostly of photographs made two and three decades ago.
Although Kasten’s concerns can recall Hans Hofmann’s painterly push and pull, her art DNA goes through Light and Space artists and the textile weave of Anni Albers and Trude Guermonprez, who was her teacher at the California College of Arts and Crafts. At the ICA, Kasten has created “Axis” (2015), a video installation that uses the architectural angles of the large gallery space with the angles of projection to create a moving vertical geometry. We see physical objects like boxes and a pyramid rotating and transforming as we move through space.
In her photographs, Kasten uses lines and angles the way an abstract painter might — as ways to build three-dimensional tension on a two-dimensional surface. In the video projection she uses a corner of a large room as the site where it all meets. She uses habits of perception to create something quite unexpected.
The ICA’s retrospective shows an artist who brings focus into the present visual field. The work can look like collage or digital photos because those media naturally allow ruptures and juxtapositions. But Kasten’s dedication to the funhouse geometry of real space surprises and seduces. This has created a conundrum for Kasten’s art getting the recognition it deserves. Her work lives in the boundaries between appearances and structure, which can only be mediated through experience.