Barbara Kasten, SHIFT @Bortolami

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 works, hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 4 cyanotype on raw linen, steel, 2022, each sized roughly 25×25 inches, unique
  • 3 archival pigment on raw linen, 2022, each sized roughly 56×42 inches, unique
  • 1 fiberglass mesh, 1974/2022, sized roughly 67x54x3 inches, unique
  • 1 fiberglass mesh, 1974/2022, sized roughly 52x45x11 inches, unique
  • 1 fiberglass mesh, 2022, sized 70x24x5 inches, unique
  • 1 silver gelatin paper and oil on canvas, 1977, three panels, each sized roughly 78x22x2 inches, unique
  • 1 silver gelatin paper and oil on canvas, 1977, two panels, each sized roughly 48x18x2 inches, unique

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: At first glance, describing a photographer as being intensely interested in materials sounds confusing, as materials are typically what sculptors, ceramicists, and textile artists (among others) are interested in, not photographers. But Barbara Kasten seems to have understood from the very beginning of her now five-decades-and-counting career that combined with the flattening eye of the camera and some controlled studio lighting, the abstract visual properties of industrial materials could be an endlessly intriguing subject.

Over the years, Kasten has transformed her various materials into a dizzying range of carefully constructed sculptural assemblages, and then photographed them in unexpectedly radical and elegant ways. Trained in painting and fiber arts, Kasten’s first cross-over foray into photography came in the mid-1970s, when she made undulatingly ethereal cyanotypes out of the flowing properties of the flexible mesh used for windows and screen doors. Since then, she has been a restless experimenter, embracing a Bauhaus-style interest in directed tinkering and applied physical construction. Along the way, she’s made layered combinations of metal rods, wire cabling, geometric solids, and countless cut sheets and planes of paper, glass, mirror, and neon-colored plastic, using everything from pure white light to seething gel colors to activate the resulting photographic compositions. Crisply edited gallery shows of Kasten’s work (as seen in 2019, reviewed here, 2017, reviewed here, and 2015, reviewed here) have often mixed examples from her old and new projects, making material and aesthetic connections (and re-connections) across the decades.

This show uses a similar two-pronged curatorial strategy, placing two recent pandemic-era projects in conversation with a handful of works from the 1970s. In the main gallery space, three large panels find Kasten experimenting with metal grates and meshes, some squared off into gridded geometries, others having a more squiggly diamond-shaped pattern. With aesthetic nods to László Moholy-Nagy and Florence Henri, Kasten has arranged cut sheets of these materials into elegantly interlocked and overlapped planes, her nearly monochrome palette deftly mixing the physical sheets themselves and the shadows they cast when lit from various angles.

As a small grouping, these three works highlight Kasten’s interest in trial and error iteration. In one work, the planes are generally flat, albeit arranged into a twist of triangulated interaction, with the differing mesh patterns becoming darker or lighter depending on the severity of the viewing angles. In another, the planes and shadows are more deliberately overlapped, creating see-through combinations and doublings. And in the third, Kasten introduces some curvature, with one grid seemingly bent back on itself and another thin strip curving into something approximating a wheel, almost like a strip of film; these are then seen from a very steep downward angle, making the spatial dynamics all the more complex. Each of these arrangements is simple and elemental, but also highly sophisticated and visually unsettled – and when printed on canvas, they take on an unexpected sense of tactile richness.

In a smaller side room, Kasten returns to the cyanotype, a technique that she re-embraced during her studio lockdown in 2020. Scraps of metal mesh are once again used as a pattern-making device, only this time the grids are laid atop raw linen, creating soft ghostly white forms on cyanotype blue. Across the face of the works, the grids seem to shift and ghost, with areas of bright sharpness giving way to more muted blurs, echoes, and modulations of color. Compositionally, they are largely flat and frontal, bringing the grid patterns up closer than in her cyanotypes from the 1970s.

But Kasten hasn’t left these linen cyanotypes alone; she has gone on to physically add steel mesh to the face of the works, creating a second layer of grid atop grip. These three-dimensional steel armatures neatly wrap around the edges, and are broken up by open “windows” (that create clear spaces through the grid) and hinged “doors” (that swivel forward into space, creating angled planes). Since the densities of the steel and underlying cyanotype grids aren’t the same (the steel grid is much larger), the overlapped pairs create visual conflicts and contradictions, which are further complicated by the openings and the cast shadows from the gallery lights (which add yet another layer of temporary gridding). The result is a set of works that seem to jitter and shift, with the photographic and the physical grids wrestling for dominance. The addition of the sculptural steel elements gives the works heft on the wall, while still allowing the underlying cyanotypes to feel intricate and controlled, the mix of hard and soft textures and spaces never quite resolving.

These two new projects are given some historical context by a few works made much earlier in Kasten’s career. One group uses fiberglass mesh as a fully sculptural material, constructing wall-hung objects that variously resemble the folded paper of an origami diamond, the billowing volume of a puffy skirt, and the vertical draping of curtains. These works from the mid 1970s (some of which have been recently reconstructed) are evidence that Kasten was always thinking in three-dimensions, and pushing industrial materials into unlikely uses. Another pair of multi-panel works from the late 1970s (which could also be displayed as folded screens) finds Kasten going for thicker compositional density and gestural intervention, by overpainting layers of photograms and creating vaguely architectural boxes that seem to tumble through the darkness. These works feel particularly experimental, with Kasten trying out unlikely combinations of artistic mediums, and reworking the compositions with paint and tape to reemphasize the presence of certain formal elements.

Now in her mid-80s, Kasten doesn’t seem to be exhibiting any signs of artistically slowing down. Her new works are rigorous and precise, as always, but also continue to push into different pockets of unexplored territory. The large gridded mesh works are muscularly analog, turning graph-paper motifs we might now associate with digital technology back into echoes of hard physicality and satisfying textural presence. And the smaller cyanotypes with steel armatures both extend ideas she has wrestled with before and embrace three-dimensionality in unexpected ways. Even when faced with the challenges of the pandemic, Kasten seems to have accelerated into the uncertainty, making new works that show us seductively intricate progressions and evolutions of her thinking.

Collector’s POV: The recent photographic works in this show are priced at $45000 or $50000 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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