If you walk into Sean Kelly gallery to have a look at the photography of James Casebere and you feel as if you have been immersed in an eldritch vision, you are not alone. These images are like the photographs that graced the covers of Architectural Digest in the 1990s: clean, well-lighted places devoid of human presence. Those photos relayed the eerie notion that the presence of people would sully the pure idealism of spaces that were supposedly constructed specifically for human use and habitation. The weirdness starts here, in that profound inconsistency.
If you are familiar with Casebere’s earlier work, particularly the series about prison cells from the ‘90s, you will find a similar hint of a melancholic absence in Emotional Architecture. He created places that are so empty, they keen for the presence of people. No one is around and no one is coming. No one can because Casebere’s photographs represent moments of stasis that in turn suspend the viewer between dystopian and utopian fantasies. The planet is engorged with people, so we long for the utter peace that solitude can bring. But we are pro-social primates, so if we were left alone indefinitely we would expire from sheer loneliness. Casebere actually photographs meticulously designed sets that he constructs to convey this emptiness that both threatens and beckons.
It’s fitting that Casebere has used this (now somewhat formulaic) approach to interpret the architecture of the fabled Mexican architect Luis Barragán — who, according to a New Yorker piece concerning the disposition of his archive, was a confluence of contradictory energies. According to the writer, Alice Gregory, “Barragán was a devout Catholic, and his work is characterized by a mixture of opulence and abnegation. ‘Where do you find more eroticism than in the cloister of a convent?’ he once asked.” He designed famous houses that were dramatically lit and suffused with color like the pink visible in “Shallow Pool” (2017), or the yellow that looks as if it was stripped from a bird and then ripened in the sun before being applied to the walls in “Yellow Passage” (2017).
Casebere’s photographs do convey the pristine, planar beauty of the architect’s designs, which, as Gregory writes, “[were] premised on surprise and an almost perverse protraction of pleasure. Low, dark corridors open into blindingly bright rooms with church-high ceilings.” Barragán may also have been a closeted gay man, which is only worth mentioning because the state of his sexuality deepens and extends the contradictions within this exhibition. The photos reflect Barragán’s architecture, which, while lovely, was reputedly built mostly within gated communities — places where other people are also hiding.
The photographs ultimately are melancholy with a tinge of the unnatural. Divorced from the life of the architect, the oeuvre of Casebere, and even the architectural space of Sean Kelly gallery — a vast display space that emphasizes the absence within the images — the works might read differently, maybe even as celebratory. But here, they keep me dangling between the nightmare and the dream.
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