Heidi Norton is a Chicago based artist and educator. She interviews Barbara Kasten, also a Chicago based artist and educator. Kasten’s work is shown nationally and internationally with recent solo shows at Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica, CA. and Gallerie Almine Rech in Paris, France. Recently she showed at three concurrent shows based on materiality and abstraction in Chicago one at Monique Meloche Gallery, another at Tony Wight Gallery, and yet another at Shane Campbell Gallery which will be up through June 12th.
Studio Construct 17, 2007
HN: Abstraction has woven itself in and out of the art world, and manifested itself in a variety of ways within the medium of photography. Historically speaking in Chicago we see two names come to mind when we talk about abstract photography, Siskind and Maholy-Nagy. They are also both significant Modernists – Siskind writing the “credo” for the MOMA exhibit, “What is Modern Photography”. From this we can deduce that abstraction was a heavy hitter within that movement. Do you see your abstract work as a continuation of or a departure from what they were trying to do?
BK: Most people think of abstraction as abstracting from something. Some abstract modernists, in both painting and photography, used the technique of starting with a complex situation and reducing it to forms that are essential to its identity or essence. I consider my work as a process that transforms itself into something else. Beginning with a simple, transparent, non-representational form, I create the image as I work through the possibilities of sculptural and lighting combinations to a new point of perception. What I admired most about Moholy was his interest and ability to work in many disciplines. My process includes several disciplines… lighting (theater), performance (temporary installation for the camera) and photography. I have also used drawing, painting and other mark making techniques as I did in the 1979 series now at Shane Campbell in a show called Terminus Ante Quem, which runs through June 12th. I “draw” on the Plexiglas used in the current Studio Construct series. I don’t relate to Siskind’s process although I like many of his photographs…he found his images in the world at large. What I do is neither a continuation nor a departure from their work but a conceptual event of my own.
Refraction I, 1979
HN: Moholy-Nagy’s abstract work of 1930’s, Siskind’s of the 1950s and yours in the 1970s – I am seeing a 20 year cycle. Do you chalk this up to trend or are there other cultural signifiers that are leading artist to revisit this type of art? Something that Carol Ehlers, former curator of the LaSalle Bank Collection and curator of the Moholy Nagy exhibition at Loyola mentioned during our panel discussion at Monique Meloche gallery on April 22nd is that the technological and economical climate has a lot to do with this “revisitation” we are seeing. For example, Moholy was making abstract work possibly to “escape” the post War political turmoil or revisit ideas of perception and reality. What are your thoughts on this influence? Has your practice been influenced by our present economic state?
BK: I don’t attribute my work to any social or cultural signifiers. The work in the 70’s was influenced mostly by what was going on in California where I lived at the time. I never studied photography and my sources of inspiration came from painting and sculpture. California light influenced me and many other artists that I admired…Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and others who worked with resin and light responsive materials. During that time the emphasis was on process and minimalism was also important. There was a spirit of experimentation in all disciplines being shown in the galleries.
There is a cyclical aspect to art marking. I think that the resurgence of abstraction now does have some relationship to the history of photography and the need to finding new forms of expression in photography. To achieve that, some artists release photography from its traditional ties by going back to its roots and reveal its intrinsic values. That direction revisits the territory covered in the past but with a contemporary point of view that could include current social and cultural realities.
Studio Construct 3, 1980
Construct 4-B, 1980
HN: To continue in that vein, there was also a scientific revolution occurring during Nagy’s time leading him to explore the photogram and abstraction. He was, in a sense, illuminating a “secondary” experience and working to better understand time, space and light through this photographic practice. In Carol Ehlers’ exhibition catalog, she quotes Nagy, “Then we know that our wish to express ourselves with optical means can only be satisfied by a thorough knowledge about light. We must become familiar with colorimetric, wavelengths, purity, brightness, excitation of light, and with the manifold possibilities of the artificial light.”
I feel we are experiencing a similar scientific/technological revolution in relation to how we capture and perceive light and color. How do you feel digital manipulation has changed the production, consumption and criticism of abstract photography? Do you feel that the abstractions inherent in the medium, particularly evident in your work, are enhanced or obscured by the further abstraction embodied in the act of digital capture/rendering and/or manipulation?
BK: Digital technology has certainly had its impact on photography in a multitude of ways with more changes yet to come. It affects everything from the hardware to the attitude and understanding of picture making. The tools we use to make art can shape the results of the work and direct the process. My choice of materials is important but so is my use of a 4×5 view camera, which demands a slow, considered approach to working. My first photographic works were photograms and my first camera works were done with an 8×10 view camera. Each had a direct influence on the image.
I have been making digital prints, however, I’ve just used a 35mm camera for a recent project and the experience is totally its own. Digital printing has a range of possibilities that can completely alter the photograph or become the object itself. I’m more inclined toward the inclusion of movement and sound in my work…. another Bauhaus influence…which I have done with video in two recent installations. They are both site specific incorporating the architectural space…the first was at SubCity in Chicago and the second one is in Paris, at Almine Rech Gallery. The video is an accumulation of sculptural forms that I’ve used in past photographs seen in a different context.
Incidence 3, 2010
HN: Your work often addresses the spatial relationship between camera and object and consequently the object of the photograph and the viewer. I particularly like how you refer to the pieces as “‘concrete photographic’ abstract image(s)” how do you see this essentialized real world dimensionality of these pieces in relation to the digitally created spaces we are growing so accustomed to viewing? Do you see yourself engaging in a discourse about the “real” in photography?
BK: I try to avoid the pigeonholing of my work as ‘abstract photography’ and/or ‘modernist’. Gottfried Jaeger, author of “Concrete Photography” states ‘Abstraction transforms the physical into the non-physical (abstracting and idealizing an object) concretion transforms the non-physical into the physical (consecrating and objectifying an idea). I am more comfortable in placing myself in the concrete photography category. I don’t see myself engaging in a discourse about the ‘real’ in photography but more about the role of lighting. My thoughts behind the work touch upon perception of where and what we focus on, not so much about spatial relationships. The most recent series, Incidence, questions what is possible to see with the naked eye while the lens intercepts enabling us to see a phenomenon of light and refraction. I think of this as an event rather than an abstraction. These images are structurally based on this concept but also provoke other emotional, maybe even violent, thoughts.
Studio Construct 106, 2010