Philadelphia

Barbara Kasten: Stages at ICA Philadelphia

At the entrance to Barbara Kasten: Stages at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, there is a corner-placed grouping of five photographs. Four early Polaroids made in 1982 and 1983 are on the right; with their geometric shapes and pastel colors, they would fit easily into the reigning design aesthetic of the 1980s. On the left is the 2007 silver-dye bleach print Studio Construct 17, a much larger, sparer version of the earlier works. This opening gambit is an excellent introduction to a retrospective that sets viewers to the task of recognizing subtle parallels and echoes in the artist’s practice across time, medium, and approach.

Barbara Kasten. Stages, 2015; installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Barbara Kasten. Stages, 2015; installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Kasten has spent thirty years circumnavigating a fundamental inquiry into form and color that holds stagecraft and the theater at its center. Unlike more traditional retrospectives that travel along a timeline from early works to recent offerings, the layout of the show discourages a chronological understanding. Instead, temporary walls divide the space to guide visitors through a number of possible viewings; the net effect is a meditation on Kasten’s mode of working, reflecting both the forward motion of her practice and the eddying returns to earlier thoughts and motivations. Within this curatorial device, the viewer can see quite plainly that the subdued black-and-white Studio Construct 125 (2011) and the brightly colored Studio Construct 32 (1986) are intimately related by formal concerns and structure despite the twenty-five years that separate them.

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(from left to right) Barbara Kasten. Studio Construct 125, 2011; archival pigment print; 53 3/4 x 43 3/4 in.; Studio Construct 32, 1986; silver-dye bleach print; 37 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

The exhibition consists mainly of Kasten’s two-dimensional work, which is an intriguing mix of photography, sculpture, set design, and the readymade. At a glance, these works are mysterious abstractions, but a longer gaze often reveals the forms within to be industrial objects such as glass bricks, mirrors, window screens, plastic cutouts, and wires. Within the field of Kasten’s framing, lighting, and positioning, these prosaic objects become everything from ghostly enigmas to grand landscapes. Two gelatin silver photograms from 1979, Amalgam Untitled 79/16 and Amalgam Untitled 79/22, feature images of spectral forms—perhaps Lucite cubes, and something even more mundane like a binder—that waver between the banal and the divine.

Barbara Kasten. Amalgam Untitled 79/22, 1979; Gleatin silver print (enlargement with photogram; 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Barbara Kasten. Amalgam Untitled 79/22, 1979; gelatin silver print (enlargement with photogram); 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Throughout the various series, the camera crops and frames the compositions in much the same manner as the rectangle of a theater does, so that the photographs become spaces for the viewer’s imagination and projections. The lighting, textures, and colors seduce, and the manufactured landscapes are dreamlike arenas in which to get lost, as though we might shrink ourselves and wander among the cones and pyramids. The tease of the materials—simultaneously known and unknown—creates tension, and the mystery of the artist’s process adds to the sense of drama. Though the images often seem to propose a world in miniature, the gallery brochure explains that they are not “tabletop compositions” and that the colors have not been achieved with paint or Photoshop: “Kasten’s setups are always scaled to the body, and the colors built up through […] compositional layering of cinematic lighting.” “The effects in the final photographs are the result of a painstaking, incremental process and when seen in person would not have been entirely visible to the naked eye.”

Barbara Kasten. Stages, 2015; installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Barbara Kasten. Stages, 2015; installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Later productions include human-scale landscapes and the built environment. The architectural elements that make up the cibachrome Dyptich II Construct XXX–XXIX (1985)—with its columns, pyramids, and archway—presages the larger real-life elements of Architectural Site 9, December 21, 1986 (1986). The same saturated colors and sharp shapes of earlier studio-built compositions migrated out into the world when Kasten began, with the help of a crew of Hollywood professionals, to light and photograph sites such as Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School and Arata Isozaki’s LA MoCA, transforming the everyday experience of architecture by the use of color and lighting. These images are even more enthralling for the way that they reduce the grandiose gestures of starchitecture to a series of acid-lit dollhouses, even while they transfigure them into fantastical structures that eclipse the blandness of concrete and glass. Whether a single glass brick or an entire complex of buildings in Lower Manhattan, the object is the actor, and the real drama of Kasten’s work is that she makes viewers forget what they are looking at.

Barbara Kasten. Stages, 2015; installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Barbara Kasten. Stages, 2015; installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

All dramatic stories return to their beginnings, and this retrospective is no exception. The artist continues to catalyze her own practice by rethinking her inspirations and returning to earlier motivations. Sculptures become photographs, which become stage sets for performances, which become real-world architectural and anthropological sites, which again become photographs made from studio constructions. The exhibition’s title couldn’t be more fitting, as it refers to both the staging of objects and creation of theater-like sets; and also to the discrete moments in Kasten’s practice, to the way in which her experiments have well-defined parameters even as they overlap and repeat—a trajectory that combines reflection with forward motion in equal measure.

Barbara Kasten: Stages is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania through August 16, 2015.

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