GUEST POST BY HEIDI NORTON
As a photography student of the mid/late 90′s, Barbara Kasten was of great significance to me. I lost track of her during the first decade of the millennium, as the contemporaries of the Becher’s school (Gursky, Ruff, Struth) dominated the art market with their dry, representational Deadpan Photography. Now, as an educator 11 years later, I relish in Kasten’s renaissance. Abstraction is transcendental to me, but above all, I see Kasten as a pioneer of contemporary relevance.
Most people know her as photographer, but Barbara Kasten is an artist. Photography is a material to her, the camera’s use- very calculated and intentional. She treats it with equal significance to the rest of her materials–mesh, plexi, screen, mirror, glass, and light. Her influences are vast and span many decades: Irwin’s light and space movement of the late 60′s; Judd’s studies and use of modern industrial material; Post-Minimalism, and its tendencies toward performance; Process art; Site-Specific art; and Abstraction of the 40′s (Moholy Nagy), 90′s, and present. She is presently celebrating her first solo show in Chicago at Tony Wight gallery, Ineluctable, which runs through October 22nd.
Barbara and I sit down and talk art–mostly me picking her mind. But flattered I am, as she is inquisitive about my work as well. See below!
H: Material became important to you very early on in your career. You were trained as a sculpture and a fibers artist. As a fibers instructor, you used fiberglass screen as a teaching tool to model 3d forms. Talk about your transition from fiberglass as a 3-D sculpting tool to its appearance in your first Cyanotype, Untitled 13, 1974. When and how was the camera introduced?
My first photographic works were photograms. When I discovered the industrial screen as a way to create 3D weaving maquettes, I also tried creating a 2D illusionistic rendition in the form of a photogram. That was in 1974, and I still use the same material today in the Studio Constructs. In the process of arranging the photograms. I liked the way that shadows were captured in negative shapes. I was also making life size arrangements using packing boxes and other geometric forms I built for that purpose. At that time, Polaroid was a new color photographic medium; so when I was offered some 8×10 Polaroid film, I learned how to use my first camera, an 8×10 view camera.
H: Speaking of the camera, let’s talk about the relationship between the image created, the materials (light, plexi, screen), and the exhibited object (the print or projection). When we spoke, you talked about the “several stages of development before the image is where it should be”. Please explain this. Can you talk about the integral relationship between the construction/sculpture and how it is mediated through the camera? A minimalist like Robert Morris might have said that there is a “dematerialization of the object via the process of it being photographed.” Do you see the camera and photographic print as more, less, or equal in relevance to the process and materials?
B: Process has been the core of all of my work- whether it was the sculptural fiber pieces I did in Poland while on a Fulbright, the photograms in the early 70′s or the most recent Studio Constructs and video work. The shadow- and the light that causes it- has been my conceptual grounding. I am not interested in the object itself but how it serves as the means of recording light and shadow. The photograph becomes the object when the light is merged with form and shadow on a 2d surface. It’s really the light that completes the action, whether it is in direct contact with light sensitive material or passing thru the lens of a camera. The Studio Constructs go through many configurations before I arrive at the final image….The ‘sculpture’ stays set up in the studio giving me time to live with it and the images I make of it. I can expose many pieces of film before I’m happy with it. Why not digital…many reasons but the main one is that I like a slower process so I can think about the work as I make it.
B: How about you, Heidi? You currently have a show up at Northeastern University, Not to Touch the Earth (Reception this Friday, Oct. 21st, from 6-9). In some of your work, the photograph seems to be a document of your process and in other work, the plants or objects are integral to the piece by their physical inclusion. Talk about these different approaches and how you decide when to create a sculptural piece versus a ‘recording of the piece’ -if you see it that way. If not, how do you think about the role of the plants? Does the photograph play a different role in each of these approaches? Tell me about the importance of the object in your work.
H: All of this work began from the image Whitescape, 2010, where I painted all the objects, including the plants, white by hand. Several weeks later, I was at my studio and noticed that the Dieffenbachia plant I used had begun to grow out of the paint. The painted leaves died and fell off and new life began to sprout from the center. I was intrigued by this–a very pleasant surprise– as painting the plants had left me feeling guilty. The material of the paint was killing, yet at the same time preserving and stimulating growth. I included that same Dieffenbachia plant in the piece Deconstructed Rebirth– my third still life construction made for the camera. In that piece you see the new sprout and the decayed white leaves hanging from the plant. Almost a year later in My Dieffenbachia Plant with Tarp (Protection), the same plant reappears as a whole new plant. Only through the use of the camera as a recording mechanism is one able to see the inclusion of this narrative. With the camera’s ability to freeze time we can see the plants in varying states through life to disparity to death. Evolution of a Plant is a more literal example of this idea. I think of the “New Age Still Life” series as sculptural construction. Like yours, these have several stages of development before they become images or objects on the wall. Higherself and Mango are shot in a studio with a plexi-glass shelving unit that was created to compress the space further within the 2D plane. In the sculptural objects- glass and wax pieces- the plants are pressed to glass or embedded in wax. These materials are also meant to preserve, freeze, and maybe illicit death. The pieces are meant to activate one another; whereas the photographs are fixed- frozen in one state, in the way that Barthes talk about the “Death of an Image”. He sees death implicit in each photograph. He is struck by how the photograph moves you back through time, how you always have the past with you- the photograph as a kind of resurrection. The sculptures will transition in front of your eyes over a span of time based on the nature of the plant. Plants in various states between life and death, wax melting, the color of the plants from green to brown- they are in constant flux.
H: In the Alex Klein essay that accompanied the group show at Shane Campbell in 2010, “Terminus Ante Quem” she compares your process to that of process and earthworks artist, Robert Smithson. She writes, “he famously challenged what he saw as the misperception that art objects function as a kind of culmination or terminus as quem of artistic achievement.” Basically stating that the object supersedes the process, or the process is a building up to the object. People see your works, the final product, a very polished and refined photograph or projection, different than the “documentation” of the 70s. How has being grouped into a movement of photographers whose work is notable for its formal beauty and technical execution changed how the work is interpreted?
B: I happen to like beautiful objects, but beauty alone isn’t enough. Some investigations of beauty can bring out the underpinnings of a structure or idea or process that doesn’t possess that same kind of beauty as the surface. However, I think that my process is important to the understanding of the work which ultimately becomes an object…. a beautiful object. The traditional photographic process is different than mine. I carry on a continual dialogue with the subject, changing each step along the way, much like a painter might do. The process is intense and intimate and can include aspects of performance, documentation and sculpture.
H: You mentioned you are reading Donald Judd’s essay on the “specificity of objects” and the discussion of the “under developed rectangle”. Please explain it’s relevance to your work. We talked about using light on reflective surface to break or reconstruct space within your work and that reduction is the abstraction. Talk more about this.
B: I was in a show at Ballroom Marfa this year and visiting the Chinati Foundation re-sparked my interest in Judd. Just to witness his immersion into the simple architecture of a small western town and how it became an extension of his vision and art. The barracks, containing row after row of polished, reflective boxes illuminated by the Texas sun, was an incredible experience of landscape and geometry merging through the medium of the sun. Judd is straightforward and yet incredibly complex. Its a position that I hope to develop more in my work and thinking.
H: Architecture within the constructed space and the architecture of the gallery seem integral to the work and installation. Please discuss the distinction between phenomenological space and imagined space, and how unambiguous, or understandable for that matter, the difference is between the two experiences.
B: An example of how I like to incorporate architecture is in the installation of ‘Ineluctable’. The three 11×14 silver gelatin prints are positioned so as to include the corner when the viewer looks towards the work. Upon close observation, one becomes aware that there is a corner in each of the pieces that reinforces and establishes the importance of the architectural element in situ. The video ‘Corner’ also plays with the identity of generic structural architecture and light projection that alters its dimensionality.
B: What about the space and environments you create in the gallery’s space? Do you think of your work as environmental installations? For instance the inclusion of architectural pedestals as in the piece, Michael 2011, shown in Jason Foumberg’s September 2011 Frieze review, or the collaborative piece with Karsten Lund, presenting shelves of books that were focused on plant life in “Not to See the Sun” exhibit at Ebersmoore last April?
H: I am interested in creating an atmosphere or environment in all of my spaces- the gallery, the studio, my apartment. When making work, I like to assume the personality of an avid plant collector, a botanist- my studio is a hybrid of herbarium and art studio. I speak mantras to my plants. There is dirt, roots, wax, film and photographs everywhere. I am a creator and nurturer of things and sometimes these things have difficulty co-existing in the same space—precious archival pigment prints shot with 4×5 transparency film made on expensive baryta inkjet paper do not mingle well with dirt, wax and resin. But I like this mix- taking something precious like a photographic print or plant and submerging it into hot wax–pushing the integrity of the material outside of it’s natural limits. Michael, the piece you mentioned, is maybe a good example of when these two polarities collide—to me, it’s both photographic and sculptural. When I created the display stands for the piece, I intended for them to not look like pedestals that reference high art. I wanted them to assume some anonymous person’s makeshift constructions. “After the Fires of a Little Sun”, the installation of books and mirror, are to reference a mantle and book collection. Not necessarily my own collection (though all the books are/have been used for personal research and relate in some abstract way to my work), but maybe someone whose interests vary from botany, to color theory, to a 1970s back-to-the-land manual. The project grafts new imagery and typewritten text directly onto the pages of existing books. The artist and writer’s responses become merged with the research materials, producing an unconventional artist’s monograph/zine, fueled by the symbiotic combination of three elements: the original texts, the writer’s typewritten thoughts, and the artist’s wide-ranging visuals. The effect of leafing through this material (now collected in one volume) is a bit like stumbling upon some anonymous person’s avid research materials — perhaps a mad botanist with a flair for detours into the histories of art and counter-culture.
Not to Touch the Earth is on view until October 28th at Northeastern Illinois. Opening Reception, October 2nd, 6-9pm.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She lives and works in Chicago. Norton has presented solo exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. Group exhibitions include How Do I Look at Monique Meloche Gallery, The World as Text at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, Snapshot at Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Knitting Factory in New York. Norton was published in My Green City (Gestalten) in 2011 and her spring show at Not to See the Sun, EbersMoore was reviewed in Frieze, September 2011. She currently is collaborating with writer Claudine Ise in a seasonal column for Bad At Sports called Mantras for Plants. Norton is represented by EBERSMOORE gallery in Chicago. She is faculty in the photography department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.