Barbara Kasten: CONSTRUCTS 1981-1982 @Bortolami

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in a small side gallery. All of the works are Polaroid polacolor prints, made in 1981 or 1982. Physical sizes are 8×10 inches (or reverse) and the prints are variously available in editions of 4, 5, 7, or 10+APs. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given that the construction trend in contemporary photography continues to gather momentum, it seems only fitting that we should start to see more historical shows that both confirm the key precedents for this kind of work and provide the necessary conceptual context for thoughtfully evaluating what is new.

Barbara Kasten’s Construct series, which she began in the late 1970s and continued through the mid 1980s, belongs on the foundation list of constructed photographic projects across the history of the medium. Consolidating the Bauhaus ideas concerning construction of Moholy-Nagy, Henri, and others with the deliberate unpacking of photographic vision by Groover, Divola, Cumming, Pfahl, and others from the mid 1970s, Kasten’s images smartly interrogate the photographic effects and interwoven spatial dynamics to be found in making images of sculptural studio installations.

This intimate show isn’t a comprehensive look at the all of the complexity embedded in the Construct images, but more of an appetizer-sized introduction to how Kasten approached the artistic problems she was exploring. Using industrial materials like black metal rods, geometric-shaped mirrors, and wire cabling as her subject matter, she meticulously arranged these objects in the physical space of her studio, like sets for a performance (her 2015 retrospective at the ICA in Philadelphia was titled Stages, cleverly using a single word to capture the layers of iteration, evolution over time, and staging in her work.) And while the modest size of the prints on view might lead us to assume that her constructions were made on a tabletop, they weren’t – she used the architecture of her studio as the backdrop, the human size and scale of the sets allowing her to move in and out of the sculptural corner-of-a-room constructions to recalibrate the angles, reflections, and proportions.

To call the Constructs abstractions is really an oversimplification. Of course, they carve out non-representational lines and geometries that are rigorously organized and balanced in space, so in this sense, they are indeed abstract. But more importantly, they experiment with the physical three dimensionality of a built environment, which is then transformed by the eye of the camera into flattened two dimensional facsimiles of that reality.

Kasten employed no post-production manipulation, distortion, or color addition in these pictures – every disorienting aspect found in the images was carefully arranged, and the images are straight photographs that document those apparent contradictions. Mirrors lie atop or overlap other mirrors, light is meticulously cast into the assemblages to create shadows that bounce around and multiply, and bold colors animate the otherwise monochromatic arrangements, these effects essentially becoming tools and techniques that Kasten then controls to generate the visual tension in her compositions.

While from afar, many of Kasten’s works recall the bold lines and primary colors of Malevich’s Constructivist paintings (and thus another resonance of their title), up close, the sophistication of her spatial management becomes much more apparent. Her sculptural setups are dense and interlocked, not so much precarious as resolutely active. Black bars lean, tilt, and intersect, and strips of mirror are both edged shapes and layered reflectors, doubling angles and combining forms. She then introduces semicircles, prisms, small discs like colored confetti, and taut wires that slash across open space like guitar strings, each object or material offering alternate ways to disrupt or redirect the ordered proceedings.

Part of what makes Kasten’s images so durably engaging is that she never is seduced by trickery, illusionism, or even clever confusion – her photographs do confound our ability to understand them at some points, but that isn’t the conceptual gotcha endpoint. In a sense, she has hijacked photography to do the things that painting can’t, and it is her mature sense of these parameters of perception that keeps her compositions fresh and challenging. While there may have been some improvisation in the re-alignment of the objects at various stages (each Construct is titled with a Roman numeral and a letter, implying that each large scale setup was built and then systematically refined as many as 20+ times), the works never feel loose or accidental – these are patient, attentive compositions that exude controlled rigor and mastery of craft.

Contemporary construction now ranges from those inspired by and extending Kasten’s brand of precise analog clarity to others more interested in chaotic layers of digital rework, compositing, mark-making, and rephotography, but it is small reminder shows like this one that keep the inter-generational dialogue grounded. It would be hard to visit this show and not come away impressed by what Kasten achieved with this series. The exhibit itself doesn’t advance our understanding of all that she did and accomplished with these pictures, but being forced to face her dazzlingly exacting constructions should be enough to educate (and encourage) those who would hope to follow in her footsteps.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $15000 each. Kasten’s photographs have been sporadically available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with only a few lots coming up for sale in any given year. Prices for those sales (which are likely not representative of market for her best work) have ranged between roughly $1000 and $12000.

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