Barbara Kasten, Set Motion @Bortolami

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 black and white and color photographs and 1 video, framed in silver and unmatted, and hung in the main gallery space, the smaller back room, and the entry area. The 4 color photographs are Fujiflex digital prints, made in 2014. These prints are sized 60×48 (or reverse) and are available in an edition of 1+1AP. The 8 black and white photographs are gelatin silver analog enlargements/photograms with paint and crayon, made in 1979. These prints are 20×16 (or reverse) and are unique. The video is a silent digital video installation (in color, duration 3 min 30 sec), made in 2015; it is available in an edition of 3. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While this tightly edited exhibit of Barbara Kasten’s work is in many ways a companion selling show neatly timed to coincide with her much deserved retrospective at the ICA in Philadelphia (linked in the sidebar), that doesn’t diminish its strength as a paired set of bookends for her career. The show brings together recent works from 2014/2015 and vintage rarities from the late 1970s, and for those unfamiliar with Kasten’s cerebrally smart brand of studio experimentation, the two projects on view (and the accompanying video) offer some crisp entry points into the ongoing evolution of her aesthetic thinking.

The artworks from Kasten’s AMALGAM series from 1979 are just that – blended compositions that combine photographic imagery of architecture and sculptural studio constructions, direct photograms, and overpainting into additive layers that collapse space and create interruptions and interconnections of form and geometry. In contrast to the relative simplicity of even the most surreal of earlier photograms from across the history of the medium, Kasten’s works interlock with mathematical precision, exploring transparency/flattening, distortion, and linear framing reminiscent of graphic design, mixing cubes, volumes, dashed lines, and screens into dense quasi-architectures. There is a sense of deliberate iteration here, of building up and then jumping off somewhere tangential to begin the next formal exercise; the works are dark and shadowy even when they are light, with leaks and ghosts softening the rigidity of the geometries.

Even in these early works, we see clues to Kasten’s later thinking – the restless experimentation, the balance of abstraction and recognizability, the managing of the space the camera sees, the comfortable use of complex studio constructions, and the meticulous investigation of the properties of light are all present as conceptual touchstones and process innovations. When we jump ahead five (yes, five) decades to Kasten’s recent work (the Transposition series), there is a sense of annealing, of tightening the visual problem set down and allowing complexity to emerge organically from the initial variables rather than consciously layering it on. Simple squares and rectangles of clear and colored plexiglas are set together, often leaning on each other or organized into sequences that create echoes and repetitions. When light is cast through the intricate constructions, there is a kaleidoscopic effect – small filters cast elongated shadows, clear edges become dark lines, and light bounces and refracts as it passes through combinations of panes, creating slashing triangles, tilted intersections, and reflected reverberations. The result is a swirling mass of polygons and lines, robustly physical three dimensionality rendered as photographic flatness.

Kasten introduces the elements of time and motion via her new video, where simple geometries march across the back wall of the gallery, the corners and edges of the room bending the projection. In this work, the geometries seem to breathe, imperceptibly expanding and contracting as they wander across the field of vision, like a heartbeat or a silent drum. Again, she is playing with our perception of depth and flatness, using restrained forms to focus our attention. It’s almost as if we are seeing an old kinetoscope film, but one taken of an encircling walk around one of Kasten’s layered glass studio sets, watching as the light bends and casts moving shadows.

Given the threads of rephotography, constructed imagery, and studio staging coursing through the digital version of contemporary photography, Kasten’s long simmering compositional ideas are finding new converts with artists and collectors alike; she’s suddenly the prescient, thoughtful precedent for a lot of what is going on now. I for one am glad to see her catch a new wave, as her work has been overlooked and undervalued for too long, and if young photographers follow in her footsteps and then go further, we will all be better off for the spread of her influence.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced as follows. The recent works from the Transposition series are $20000 each, while the vintage prints from the AMALGAM series are $30000 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 $9000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Little More (distributor link here). Hardcover, 316×265 mm, 308 pages (unpaginated), with black-and-white and color image spreads/pairings. With short texts by the ... Read on.

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