Barbara Kasten, PARTI PRIS @Bortolami

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 photographic works, alternately framed in silver and unmatted or unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. 3 of the works are Fujiflex digital prints made in 2017. These prints are each sized 63×48 and are available in editions of 1+2AP. The other 5 works are Fujiflex digital prints with fluorescent acrylic, also made in 2017. These works are each sized roughly 36x36x6 and are unique. The show also includes 1 sculpture from 2017, on view in the center of the gallery space. It is made of fluorescent acrylic, is sized approximately 32x98x96, and is unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The image/object dichotomy of photography has been a favorite discussion point for conceptually-minded photographers since the 1960s. At its root, it recognizes the idea that a photograph can operate simultaneously as a flat two-dimensional image/representation and a three dimensional object (a physical print) with real surface and volume, and for many artists, this push and pull has been a catalyst for the creation of photographic works that deliberately straddle (or defy) typical genre boundaries.

One subset of the artworks that have emerged from this line of thinking are works that place images and objects into direct dialogue with each other. In some cases, this has meant using an object to sculpturally interrupt or intervene in an image (like many of Marlo Pascual’s recent installations), while in others, objects and images of those same objects have been installed together (like Joseph Kosuth’s famous chairs), forcing the viewer to consider the edges of perception and recognition. In this way, opposition and commentary have consistently worked their way into the image/object argument.

What has proven much harder for artists of all kinds has been the integration of images and objects into coherent tightly-coupled combinations that feel synergistic rather than reactive – history has shown is that it has been extremely hard to incorporate a physical object into a photograph without it feeling like a bolt-on, or worse, a gimmick. Some of the most successful efforts have been those that use string, rope, or small swatches of fabric (like some of the early conceptual works by Helena Almeida, Liliana Porter and others), as they use the object(s) to bridge out of the picture and extend its ideas beyond the edge of the frame and into three dimensions without introducing an attention grabbing distraction. And Vik Muniz’ most recent show earlier this year (reviewed here) delivered a wide spectrum of carefully constructed experiments employing in-frame image/object combinations.

That Barbara Kasten, now in her early 80s, could step into this dangerous artistic minefield and deliver brand new works that raise the standard for sophisticated image/object synergy is perhaps not altogether surprising. Kasten has been painstakingly exploring the nuances of photographic space for decades, iteratively unpacking how the camera sees and building elaborate constructions of mirrors, tinted plastic, and cast light that have incrementally tested the limits of perception.

Kasten’s new works from her Progressions series attack the problem of photographic three dimensionality from a core of strength, namely her subtle understanding of (and experience in) how abstract geometries can be fit together effectively. She starts from a familiar place – sheets of fluorescent acrylic cut into squares, triangles, and other hard edged forms, which are then placed into elaborate tabletop arrangements and carefully lit. Her controlled experiments turn edges into dark lines, twist squares into overlapping polygons, and create shadows and reflections that add yet another layer of geometric space. As seen in a selection of large scale photographs hung nearby (from the recent Collision series), her mastery of spatial relationships and additive color remains in top form, the interlocking planes intertwining with intricate complexity.

But it’s Progression One that begins Kasten’s extension beyond the photographic picture plane, and this is where things get much more risky. In the underlying photograph, she has built a relatively pared down arrangement of planes and edges, dividing the composition into areas of light blue, orange, and pink, with cast shadows creating defined areas of deeper color. Thin strips of acrylic (set on their edges) are then affixed to the surface of the flat photograph (the print is actually face mounted to Plexi, so it’s actually a plastic to plastic adhesive connection), and used as supports for larger square sheets that rest at an angle. The result is an integrated work that extends into the third dimension, the additional physical sheets continuing the abstract dialogue of geometries begun by the sheets in the photograph underneath. And this process feels entirely intuitive and natural – it makes conceptual and aesthetic sense to use real physical planes of tinted color to interact with the ones in the image below.

As the series continues, we see Kasten testing different permutations and options. Progression Two extends the surface sheets into longer rectangles and employs more strips as protruding lines that seem to loosely radiate like the hands of a clock. Progression Three introduces interlocked planes that rise up into an X, the cut through orange and yellow echoing planes in the supporting image. Progression Five tries angled sheets, offering more triangular forms and slashing bisected lines. And Progression Six is the perhaps the strongest of the new works, creating a skeletal backbone of structure to hold a series of flat panels that hover above the divisions of space underneath. In each, we find Kasten smartly extending her vocabulary into three dimensions, the process allowing her to think in innovative ways that play with depth and extension more fully than her photographs normally allow.

With these ideas as a foundation, it isn’t a stretch to see the sculptural jumble of fluorescent acrylic boxes in the center of the room as fundamentally photographic as well. Even though it exists in three dimensions, Kasten as taught us to see with an eye for flatness and transparency. So as we circle the pile of elongated rectangles, we experience a sense of shifting vantage points, each one an opportunity to see through the sculpture to a set of overlapped planes and colors.

In many ways, there is a sense of elemental purity in this show that feels exactly right – Kasten has executed the photographic image/object integration with singular grace and intelligence, and done so on her own terms, so that the 2D/3D dialogue is a natural extension of her fundamental artistic interests, not just a diversion. Given’s Kasten’s influence on the younger generation of studio-based builders working in contemporary photography today, it seems likely that a few will observe the sophisticated breaking of the wall going on here and quickly adapt her insightful compositional learnings into their own artistic approaches, just as all fast followers do. As she moves into her eight decade, this show proves that Barbara Kasten is still actively pushing against the boundaries of the medium and devising original solutions that deserve our continued attention.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced as follows. The large prints are $32000 each, while the prints with sculptural extensions are $40000 each. Kasten’s photographs have only been sporadically available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with only a few lots (if any) 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.

Read more about: Barbara Kasten, Bortolami Gallery

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