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Kissing Constructs: Barbara Kasten’s surreal photography at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

by Bika Rebek
October 7, 2015
Originally published on
The Architects Newspaper |

Thursday night, Barbara Kasten’s first major retrospective opened at the Graham Foundation as an offsite event of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Set in the Madlener house, a turn-of-the century Prairie-Style mansion, the exhibition brings together a roughly chronological overview of the artist’s practice from the 1970s until today.

The works on display are of an astonishingly contemporary quality—many of the framed photographs follow the aesthetic paradigms of current net—or Tumblr art featuring primitive geometric shapes of varying surface texture lit in a rich palette of pastel colors forming surreal spatial compositions.

Kasten started her career working with fibers, with some of the most impressive works in the show being a series of cyanotype prints from the 1970s achieved by laying down fiberglass molds onto large sheets coated with chemicals. The images evoke seemingly three-dimensional rippled fabric brought to the flat plane through a technical process.

Moving further into the third dimension Kasten started to build large-scale studio sets in the 1970s. Her forms highly geometric at first, she increasingly started adding more specific elements such as column details from architectural catalogues. These photographs are highly reminiscent of much more recent images circulating on the internet produced with 3d modeling and rendering software. Many of the analogue processes used by Kasten in this phase of her work can be applied particularly well in the virtual domain. The backgrounds are simplistic and contained, there is no natural light or environment to complicate the render process, and the objects are geometric primitives or sourced from catalogues rather than created from scratch. Despite formal similarities a significant difference separates the ethereal digital spaces from Barbara Kasten meticulously constructed environments. As Kasten points out in a recent interview, weight and gravity play an important role in the construction of sculptures. The props used by Kasten are never mounted in place but rest on or adjacent to each other through gravity.

By the 1980s Kasten moved on to incorporating existing buildings into her sets, transforming them through light, color, and mirrors to create compositional photographs. She first worked with corporate headquarters and financial centers and later turned to museums as different kind of spaces of authority. Depicting these composed, lasting, authoritative buildings with temporary, fragile, colorful and disorienting sensibility she produced what Sylvia Lavin coined a kiss, or a powerful statement through a gentle gesture. The images produced in this series act as records of an atmospheric transformation of a number of establishment-reinforcing spaces.

On the third floor of the Madlener house the show culminates with a site specific installation. With moving light projections directed at sculptural forms it is like one of her photographic stages come to life. It is a beautiful experience yet also feels like an unmasking of a magicians trick—with the mechanism behind the photographs exposed, the stage-like installation loses some of the precision and specificity of the highly controlled still frames. The piece is most successful at illustrating the incredible breadth of Barbara Kasten’s work, blurring the boundaries between art, installation, and architecture—despite the fact that all the illusions are based on the limits of physical space.
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