The “Stages” of Barbara Kasten could mean two things: the preparation that goes into the Chicago-based multimedia artist’s extensive research in making her work, or, in the sense of how, through creating that work, one thread leads to another in sequences of endless explorations that test the boundaries of temporality.
The Graham Foundation’s comprehensive exhibition in conjunction with the Chicago Architectural Biennial presents five decades of Kasten’s practice across photography, textiles, sculpture, installation and architecture. While it may span a wide range of years, it’s definitely more of a major survey than a comprehensive retrospective. Loosely gathering Kasten’s work from the 1970s until today proposes differences in form but similarities in themes, and it’s enthralling to witness not just the progression of how the scale of her work expands from the studio into the outside world, but how that perspective keeps enlarging itself, still.
Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania and curated by the ICA’s Alex Klein, the result is a homecoming that features installations especially considered for the Madlener House across three floors: an introduction to the scale and breadth of her work that establishes key patterns, a more tightly-knit collection of specific projects and series, and a special site-specific piece created especially for the building’s top-floor ballroom. Kasten worked closely on the Chicago iteration of the show, allowing the organizers full access to her print and video archives, including sketchbooks, process diagrams, theater set and costume designs, advertising work and more, many of which are on display in the Graham’s library.
While Kasten is best known for her photographs, the underpinning of her practice is in shaping spaces and building structures, be they through the literal grids of an architectural plan or through the ways that images are framed and scaffolded through cropping and color selection. She has a way of subtly encouraging viewers to seek out a flipped view, to look closer and deeper. “Constructs,” a series of photographs from the 1980s, presents familiar shapes assembled in geode-like tones, mirrored to appear floating, while her “Architectural Sites” works reposition familiar places of commerce into dramatically lit, hypersaturated dreamscapes. While such works are rooted in illusions, there are never any hidden motives in play—just a suggestion that viewers keep in mind that surfaces are hardly ever what they may seem.
The show’s biggest strength is in its nonlinearity, not to mention a presentation that speaks to Kasten’s impeccable considerations of material. There’s a precarious balance to the arrangement of the works included here. Sculpture becomes photography, which in turn becomes set design. Basic geometry becomes complex arrangement. Massive scale shows micro themes. It all adds up to a thrill of doing double (or triple) takes, stepping back, or looking even closer.
“Barbara Kasten: Stages” runs from October 1-January 9 at The Graham Foundation, 4 West Burton Place.
Ben Schulman is the editor of the design section of Newcity and co-host of “A Lot You Got to Holler,” the Newcity podcast on design, architecture and urbanism. His work with Newcity is one of many ventures he engages in to communicate the value of design and cities. Ben serves as the communications director for Small Change, a real estate crowdfunding platform that works to catalyze the development of transformative real estate projects. Previously, he was the communications director for the Chicago chapter of The American Institute of Architects, editor of Chicago Architect magazine and communications director for the urban think-tank, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). His writing has appeared and been noted in outlets such as ARCHITECT Magazine, Belt Magazine, ICON, New Geography, Streetsblog, The National Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pop City Media and as a contributor to The Urbanophile, among others. When not writing about cities, Ben serves as an editorial assistant for the journal New Media + Society, and helps head the Contraphonic Sound Series, an attempt to document cities through sound.
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