Barbara Kasten: Fleeting Light
By Ed Osowski
Barbara Kasten: Constructs. Little, Brown and Co. (New York Graphic Society; 1985. Unpaged. $22.50.
There are two ways to look at Barbara Kasten's first collection of photographs, “Constructs”. The first approach leads one to study these fifteen photographs, taken between I980 and 1984, as photographs, as objects in themselves. And they certainly hold one's attention for such study.
Kasten has used a 20 by-24 Polaroid camera to record environments that consist of posts and columns, cones, spheres, mirrors, scrims that reflect and confine color, and images repeated and manipulated in the mirrors. Color is central to Kasten's work. Her colors shift from subtle, muted greys and pinks in the earlier photographs to hotter, jazzier, and denser combinations of orange, green, and purple in the later works. In terms of content, even the least complicated works. "Construct V-A. I980," for example, reveals a startling richness when examined closely. Shadows and lines take on weight, presence, so that it becomes impossible to add up the "objects" that comprise an arrangement. The sphere in this photograph casts two shadows which are as "real," for Kastehs purposes, as the sphere itself.
But the thirteen "modernist" poems that accompany the photographs urge another way of reading Constructs. The photographs contain, in the language of semiotics, the signs and symbols that point at something beyond the mere object. Italo Calvino phrases it this way in "Cities and Signs," one of the poems that appears here: "Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing." That "other thing" is the sense of wholeness that comes from the particular, to paraphrase Robert Hass. The photographs serve not as illustrations of the poems, but rather, taken together they point to another way of reading the world.
In the three-page essay that concludes Constructs. Estelle Jussim describes the evolution of Kasten’s "optical fantasies." In Kasten's manipulation of light and color. Jussim locates the photographs' appeal. Jussim is correct, to a point, because the surface message of the photographs is about manipulating light — after all, that is what color is — to produce sensual effects. In this respect, Kasten's debt to Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy is clear. But Kasten uses the very sensual qualities of her photographs as a point of departure to a deeper, more transcendent realm. It helps to think of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt as influences here. Her formal, controlled, ordered photographs, in which each detail is considered, in which abstraction reigns supreme, are efforts to rescue things and the most fleeting of them all, light, from the world of flux. Her photographs are about the structure that lies beneath the surface where objects exist in the very essence of their being.