Building with Light and Shadow: An Interview with Barbara Kasten

AIA Architect Ι Oct. 30, 2015 

Good art, and architecture, can look into the future. There’s French Surrealist Yves Tanguy’s paintings, which would be dead ringers for early computer animation had they not been painted in 1945. There’s the seminal 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, which produced designs that could settle into any contemporary skyline. And there’s pioneering photography artist Barbara Kasten, whose photos are filled with the elements of architecture without ever arriving at a building, represented with a crisp digital sheen that predates the existence of this technology by decades.

Kasten’s computerized patina is an illusion, arrived at through intricately staged photo shoots that layer colored screens, lighting, mirrors, and three-dimensional objects. Her work is entirely analog, shot on film. Many look like the slick computer renderings with which architects fill their websites —as if these images had been broken down with the aid of Cubist dissolving acid. It’s a universe of abstraction with only occasional cues that these things exist in the real world: intersecting planes, cubist geometry, and maybe a steel cable, if you look closely.

In the 1980s, Kasten began documenting well-known postmodernist architecture as neon capitalist fantasias. Her more recent work has doubled down on abstraction. She’s almost literally (as architects often claim) painting with light—obscuring the difference between a plane of glass, its shadow, and a beam of light.

As part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Graham Foundation is hosting Stages, the first major survey of Kasten’s work. Appropriately, it includes a newly commissioned work deeply engaged with architecture. “Scenario” projects images of boldly colored geometric models onto a stage inhabited by three-dimensional rectangles and cubes, weaving together shadow, light, color, and form into a city skyline of pure abstraction.

Q: You’ve called several series of your art “Constructs.” To what extent do you consider yourself a builder?

A: Quite a bit. I’ve really always loved three-dimensional form and the idea of constructing form. It felt very natural to want to make something that spread into space, that had spatial qualities, and then see how it could be presented in something like photography that only has the illusion of space. I’ve always been interested in architecture. I grew up here in Chicago, and spending a lot of time downtown it was very interesting to me to see the growth of skyscrapers and that sort of historical point of view. I probably would have thought about being an architect if it were a more open idea for women to be architects.

Q: Architects often talk about using light as a material, but that’s what you’re doing, almost literally. Do you ever feel like you’re living out an architect’s wildest fantasies, using light as material and working in raw abstraction?

A: I think we understand each other’s ideologies. I sometimes think of myself as an architect. When I build my structures that I photograph, they’re transparent planes that lean on each other. I don’t attach them, but I find a common place where they can stand without material holding them together. I look for the basic ideas of building, very natural positions for two planes to intersect. In that way I have this architectural mentality.

I always think of shadow as being equal to light. The forms that architects make [with] very strong light [that] creates very hard and deep shadows; those forms also become part of the structure that they’ve built.

Q: There’s a recent species of architectural photography that zeroes in on specific building features in ways that completely abstracts them and makes these features hard to read as building elements. Deconstructivists like to see their work this way. What do you think of this loosening standard for the representation of architecture?

A: The attitudes of architects have opened up so much that they can see their work being represented that way. [Architects] are a strange mix of artist and entrepreneur; they have to sell these buildings. On their other hand, their artistic vision has to be part of the sale. It really opens and loosens attitudes when they say, “You can just photograph the shadows, and it represents who I am.” You probably can recognize a lot of the architects’ work by the kind of close-up abstraction of their buildings.

Q: What do art, photography, and architecture have to say to each other now?

A: It’s the real world in juxtaposition to a rendition of the real world. Architecture as we know it has become personal statements and personal vision, and I think the same thing is happening in photography. There’s a much more personal interpretation of the world at large and also of the world that can be constructed in the studio. It’s an openness of imagining at play in both fields that bring them together.