Barbara Kasten, Studio Construct 69, 2008, Archival pigment print.
WORDS BY: John D’Agostino
||In many ways, the medium of Photography has still yet to have what I like to call its Brown vs. Board of Education moment. It still wants to be separate – but equal.
And so what’s refreshing about the work of Barbara Kasten even after some 30 years is her particular cultivation of how Photography can be successfully integrated with other disciplines, such as painting, architecture, or sculptural concerns.
Consider that for many long years, Photography had no spirited critics, no art fairs, no galleries whatsoever. It was the little red-headed step child at the dance, and was clearly not considered high Art. And yet of course, many of its finest practitioners longed to be at the big dance just like its bigger brothers, the far more supposedly serious and important mediums, like painting and sculpture.
Those Modern masters like Edward Weston had an ingenious strategy to create this much sought after respect. They wanted Photography to be recognized as a “new and independent medium” containing its own “unique” potentialities and limitations, to have inherently “different” qualities than any other medium. Craving recognition desperately, Photography became obsessed with the goal of somehow becoming ‘separate but equal‘ – if it could never compete on the aesthetic terms of its bigger brothers, well then it would create its own system of values. Pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz called for photography to have its own “distinct department” of Art.
Barbara Kasten, Construct LB/5, 1982. Polaroid.
Of course, eventually the great Modernists did succeed in raising Photography’s status to that of the highest of high art, where it is, today, with its own little gallery down the museum halls, just like they always wanted.
But today, many people are still unaware of some of the costs that came with this great success, this so called “separate department” of Art. For, possibly unlike any other medium, to achieve this unique status, Photography had to be conventionalized. It had to be institutionalized – to perhaps to a greater degree than any other medium. Certain things had to be in, others, out. The medium had to have some particular rules, some conventions, some cliches that necessitated and always somehow justified that separate gallery. And so of course there was always that inherent danger that if the medium ever starting looking or acting a little bit “too much” like those bigger brothers, that it threatened its own funding and livelihood. An almost willful ignorance happily developed.
And so, fine art Photography, still to this day, relies on this false premise that every medium has its “own” discrete agenda, its “own” personal aesthetics. As a result, a kind of incestuous quality spawned in the medium, wherein it sought to isolate itself from other mediums and influences. Photography increasingly referenced only itself, and only its own history, seemingly oblivious to the wider world out there.
This was very humorously brought home to me at a recent panel discussion for the AIPAD show at Hunter College in New York on the history of Color Photography, where much of the discussion referenced the big “discovery” of color starting out with the seminal color work of photographers like William Eggleston in the 1960′s and 70′s. But Ms. Kasten sort of ruined this happy little narrative, by suggesting that unlike other photographers on the panel, to her, that’s not when she “discovered” color. Color was already “there,” she said, in fact, it was always there. She just wasn’t thinking only like a photographer, assuming black and white was the default, or only, tradition.
Think of someone like director Quentin Tarantino, and all the endless cinephile “movie and TV only” pop culture references in his films, and you will get a vibe for this kind of incestuous overtone I describe, one that lionizes particular influences, but eschews others. Even to this day, 100 years later, Pictorialism and so called ‘painterly’ concerns are still marginalized, all those great Modernist photographers having finally succeeded in championing their more Purist notions of the photographic print and what it should “do” – and not do.
Of course, someday Photography may just have to come to terms with all of this, and much like with the real Brown vs. Board of Education in the civil rights movement, realize what it may have to give up in its precious isolation to gain in a wider and more integrated synthesis with all of the Arts.
Barbara Kasten, Studio Construct 125, 2011, Archival pigment print.
Regardless, it is with a unique pleasure we consider the work of Barbara Kasten, who does not seem at all to be constrained by any of these limiting concerns. Quite the contrary, her influences are many and diverse, including Lazló Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus, Constructivism, Robert Irwin and James Turrell to name just a few. And probably not by accident, unlike many a photography student today, she came to photography indirectly, trained initially as a painter in the late 1950′s, experimenting with sculpture and soft material in the 60′s, eventually turning to the two dimensional photograph only by the 70′s.
And this is where her sophistication is apparent. Balancing menace and elegance, Kasten synthesizes sculpture, painting and architecture to create new forms. Unlike many others, photography is material to her; she uses real space, rather than just, say, moving elements on paper, or working cameraless in the darkroom in the tradition of say the conventional photogram. Rather, she builds what she likes to call “Constructs” in her studio out of a variety of objects – Plexiglas panels, spheres, mirrors, pyramids, columns, paper, and then photographs them in light and shade.
Barbara Kasten, IV-B, 1980. Cibachrome.
Kasten’s images have weight and depth, sharp edges that hover above and hurtle down. Her work has the push and pull of a painting, but along with the complicated environment that only the light and shadow of the photographic can provide. As Estelle Jussim wrote: “They are theatre, sculpture, painting, light play–all masquerading as photographs.”
Her medium is photography, but it is not conventionally conceived. Often they have a Freudian quality to them. It is hard to ignore all those dangerous, sharp edges, those pointy glass shards, and not imagine some kind of knife, some kind of weapon, penetrations.