GUEST POST BY HEIDI NORTON
As a photography student of the mid/late 90′s, Barbara Kasten was of great significance to me. I lost track of her during the first decade of the millennium, as the contemporaries of the Becher’s school (Gursky, Ruff, Struth) dominated the art market with their dry, representational Deadpan Photography. Now, as an educator 11 years later, I relish in Kasten’s renaissance. Abstraction is transcendental to me, but above all, I see Kasten as a pioneer of contemporary relevance.
Most people know her as photographer, but Barbara Kasten is an artist. Photography is a material to her, the camera’s use- very calculated and intentional. She treats it with equal significance to the rest of her materials–mesh, plexi, screen, mirror, glass, and light. Her influences are vast and span many decades: Irwin’s light and space movement of the late 60′s; Judd’s studies and use of modern industrial material; Post-Minimalism, and its tendencies toward performance; Process art; Site-Specific art; and Abstraction of the 40′s (Moholy Nagy), 90′s, and present. She is presently celebrating her first solo show in Chicago at Tony Wight gallery, Ineluctable, which runs through October 22nd.
Barbara and I sit down and talk art–mostly me picking her mind. But flattered I am, as she is inquisitive about my work as well. See below!
H: Material became important to you very early on in your career. You were trained as a sculpture and a fibers artist. As a fibers instructor, you used fiberglass screen as a teaching tool to model 3d forms. Talk about your transition from fiberglass as a 3-D sculpting tool to its appearance in your first Cyanotype, Untitled 13, 1974. When and how was the camera introduced?
My first photographic works were photograms. When I discovered the industrial screen as a way to create 3D weaving maquettes, I also tried creating a 2D illusionistic rendition in the form of a photogram. That was in 1974, and I still use the same material today in the Studio Constructs. In the process of arranging the photograms. I liked the way that shadows were captured in negative shapes. I was also making life size arrangements using packing boxes and other geometric forms I built for that purpose. At that time, Polaroid was a new color photographic medium; so when I was offered some 8×10 Polaroid film, I learned how to use my first camera, an 8×10 view camera.
H: Speaking of the camera, let’s talk about the relationship between the image created, the materials (light, plexi, screen), and the exhibited object (the print or projection). When we spoke, you talked about the “several stages of development before the image is where it should be”. Please explain this. Can you talk about the integral relationship between the construction/sculpture and how it is mediated through the camera? A minimalist like Robert Morris might have said that there is a “dematerialization of the object via the process of it being photographed.” Do you see the camera and photographic print as more, less, or equal in relevance to the process and materials?
B: Process has been the core of all of my work- whether it was the sculptural fiber pieces I did in Poland while on a Fulbright, the photograms in the early 70′s or the most recent Studio Constructs and video work. The shadow- and the light that causes it- has been my conceptual grounding. I am not interested in the object itself but how it serves as the means of recording light and shadow. The photograph becomes the object when the light is merged with form and shadow on a 2d surface. It’s really the light that completes the action, whether it is in direct contact with light sensitive material or passing thru the lens of a camera. The Studio Constructs go through many configurations before I arrive at the final image….The ‘sculpture’ stays set up in the studio giving me time to live with it and the images I make of it. I can expose many pieces of film before I’m happy with it. Why not digital…many reasons but the main one is that I like a slower process so I can think about the work as I make it.
B: How about you, Heidi? You currently have a show up at Northeastern University, Not to Touch the Earth (Reception this Friday, Oct. 21st, from 6-9). In some of your work, the photograph seems to be a document of your process and in other work, the plants or objects are integral to the piece by their physical inclusion. Talk about these different approaches and how you decide when to create a sculptural piece versus a ‘recording of the piece’ -if you see it that way. If not, how do you think about the role of the plants? Does the photograph play a different role in each of these approaches? Tell me about the importance of the object in your work.
H: All of this work began from the image Whitescape, 2010, where I painted all the objects, including the plants, white by hand. Several weeks later, I was at my studio and noticed that the Dieffenbachia plant I used had begun to grow out of the paint. The painted leaves died and fell off and new life began to sprout from the center. I was intrigued by this–a very pleasant surprise– as painting the plants had left me feeling guilty. The material of the paint was killing, yet at the same time preserving and stimulating growth. I included that same Dieffenbachia plant in the piece Deconstructed Rebirth- my third still life construction made for the camera. In that piece you see the new sprout and the decayed white leaves hanging from the plant. Almost a year later in My Dieffenbachia Plant with Tarp (Protection), the same plant reappears as a whole new plant. Only through the use of the camera as a recording mechanism is one able to see the inclusion of this narrative. With the camera’s ability to freeze time we can see the plants in varying states through life to disparity to death. Evolution of a Plant is a more literal example of this idea. I think of the “New Age Still Life” series as sculptural construction. Like yours, these have several stages of development before they become images or objects on the wall. Higherself and Mango are shot in a studio with a plexi-glass shelving unit that was created to compress the space further within the 2D plane. In the sculptural objects- glass and wax pieces- the plants are pressed to glass or embedded in wax. These materials are also meant to preserve, freeze, and maybe illicit death. The pieces are meant to activate one another; whereas the photographs are fixed- frozen in one state, in the way that Barthes talk about the “Death of an Image”. He sees death implicit in each photograph. He is struck by how the photograph moves you back through time, how you always have the past with you- the photograph as a kind of resurrection. The sculptures will transition in front of your eyes over a span of time based on the nature of the plant. Plants in various states between life and death, wax melting, the color of the plants from green to brown- they are in constant flux.
H: In the Alex Klein essay that accompanied the group show at Shane Campbell in 2010, “Terminus Ante Quem” she compares your process to that of process and earthworks artist, Robert Smithson. She writes, “he famously challenged what he saw as the misperception that art objects function as a kind of culmination or terminus as quem of artistic achievement.” Basically stating that the object supersedes the process, or the process is a building up to the object. People see your works, the final product, a very polished and refined photograph or projection, different than the “documentation” of the 70s. How has being grouped into a movement of photographers whose work is notable for its formal beauty and technical execution changed how the work is interpreted?
B: I happen to like beautiful objects, but beauty alone isn’t enough. Some investigations of beauty can bring out the underpinnings of a structure or idea or process that doesn’t possess that same kind of beauty as the surface. However, I think that my process is important to the understanding of the work which ultimately becomes an object…. a beautiful object. The traditional photographic process is different than mine. I carry on a continual dialogue with the subject, changing each step along the way, much like a painter might do. The process is intense and intimate and can include aspects of performance, documentation and sculpture.
H: You mentioned you are reading Donald Judd’s essay on the “specificity of objects” and the discussion of the “under developed rectangle”. Please explain it’s relevance to your work. We talked about using light on reflective surface to break or reconstruct space within your work and that reduction is the abstraction. Talk more about this.
B: I was in a show at Ballroom Marfa this year and visiting the Chinati Foundation re-sparked my interest in Judd. Just to witness his immersion into the simple architecture of a small western town and how it became an extension of his vision and art. The barracks, containing row after row of polished, reflective boxes illuminated by the Texas sun, was an incredible experience of landscape and geometry merging through the medium of the sun. Judd is straightforward and yet incredibly complex. Its a position that I hope to develop more in my work and thinking.
H: Architecture within the constructed space and the architecture of the gallery seem integral to the work and installation. Please discuss the distinction between phenomenological space and imagined space, and how unambiguous, or understandable for that matter, the difference is between the two experiences.
B: An example of how I like to incorporate architecture is in the installation of ‘Ineluctable’. The three 11×14 silver gelatin prints are positioned so as to include the corner when the viewer looks towards the work. Upon close observation, one becomes aware that there is a corner in each of the pieces that reinforces and establishes the importance of the architectural element in situ. The video ‘Corner’ also plays with the identity of generic structural architecture and light projection that alters its dimensionality.
B: What about the space and environments you create in the gallery’s space? Do you think of your work as environmental installations? For instance the inclusion of architectural pedestals as in the piece, Michael 2011, shown in Jason Foumberg’s September 2011 Frieze review, or the collaborative piece with Karsten Lund, presenting shelves of books that were focused on plant life in “Not to See the Sun” exhibit at Ebersmoore last April?
H: I am interested in creating an atmosphere or environment in all of my spaces- the gallery, the studio, my apartment. When making work, I like to assume the personality of an avid plant collector, a botanist- my studio is a hybrid of herbarium and art studio. I speak mantras to my plants. There is dirt, roots, wax, film and photographs everywhere. I am a creator and nurturer of things and sometimes these things have difficulty co-existing in the same space—precious archival pigment prints shot with 4×5 transparency film made on expensive baryta inkjet paper do not mingle well with dirt, wax and resin. But I like this mix- taking something precious like a photographic print or plant and submerging it into hot wax–pushing the integrity of the material outside of it’s natural limits. Michael, the piece you mentioned, is maybe a good example of when these two polarities collide—to me, it’s both photographic and sculptural. When I created the display stands for the piece, I intended for them to not look like pedestals that reference high art. I wanted them to assume some anonymous person’s makeshift constructions. “After the Fires of a Little Sun”, the installation of books and mirror, are to reference a mantle and book collection. Not necessarily my own collection (though all the books are/have been used for personal research and relate in some abstract way to my work), but maybe someone whose interests vary from botany, to color theory, to a 1970s back-to-the-land manual. The project grafts new imagery and typewritten text directly onto the pages of existing books. The artist and writer’s responses become merged with the research materials, producing an unconventional artist’s monograph/zine, fueled by the symbiotic combination of three elements: the original texts, the writer’s typewritten thoughts, and the artist’s wide-ranging visuals. The effect of leafing through this material (now collected in one volume) is a bit like stumbling upon some anonymous person’s avid research materials — perhaps a mad botanist with a flair for detours into the histories of art and counter-culture.
Not to Touch the Earth is on view until October 28th at Northeastern Illinois. Opening Reception, October 2nd, 6-9pm.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She lives and works in Chicago. Norton has presented solo exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. Group exhibitions include How Do I Look at Monique Meloche Gallery, The World as Text at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, Snapshot at Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Knitting Factory in New York. Norton was published in My Green City (Gestalten) in 2011 and her spring show at Not to See the Sun, EbersMoore was reviewed in Frieze, September 2011. She currently is collaborating with writer Claudine Ise in a seasonal column for Bad At Sports called Mantras for Plants. Norton is represented by EBERSMOORE gallery in Chicago. She is faculty in the photography department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Artist Heidi Norton and I share an abiding interest in all things plants. During several conversations we had while I was profiling her for Art Ltd., we often talked about the relationship between art and gardening. Heidi incorporates living plant matter directly into her sculptures and has used various types of house plants in her New Age Still Life photographs, along with the more recent series of images shown in her show Not To See the Sun at ebersmoore last month. Heidi and I have continued to talk about the relationship of art, plants, and gardening, and as the next iteration of what has become an ongoing exchange, we’ve decided to conduct a series of interviews with other artists to further explore those connections. Voila: Mantras for Plants, a new, irregularly appearing series of posts.
First up, Heidi talks with Chicago photographer John Opera about his practice and his use of the Anthotype printing process. Opera recently exhibited his photographs at Andrew Rafacz in Chicago and at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, MO. He’ll be exhibiting his work in a group show titled “To Tell The Truth” at Monya Rowe Gallery in New York from June 17th-July 29, as well as in another group show at Statler Waldorf Gallery in Los Angeles that opens June 17th.
Heidi Norton: What is an Anthotype? Can you explain the process? How did you come to find it and how do you feel it fits into your practice?
John Opera: The Anthotype is a printing process that was invented by Sir John Herschel around 1832, five years after the first known photograph. It represents a moment right at the beginning of photography as a medium. The discovery of the process was very much a part of the initial experiments that led up to photography, as it was eventually known in the 19th century, both in technical terms and in metaphoric terms as well.
In addition to his photographic research, Herschel was also an accomplished botanist and researched the chemical properties of light. His experiments often crossed disciplines. That’s how the Anthotype came about—it was an attempt to connect fixing a photographic image to photosynthesis. Herschel discovered that he could make a rudimentary print emulsion using pigments extracted from plant material. He made his prints by treating paper with the plant-based emulsion and pressing a negative tightly against the paper under a sheet of glass. The prints are then exposed during the height of summer when the sun is very intense. The printing process can require anywhere from a week to three weeks in direct sunlight.
For my Anthotypes, I used beets, blueberries, pokeberries, chokeberries and several varieties of lilies. It’s pre-photography. I was really interested in that notion. There is a strange connectivity that the process has to the natural world. It feels alchemical to me. I collected some of the plants at sites where I made landscape photos in the past, specifically the pokeberries, so I guess you could say that some of the images have a connection to my past work, or at least they are part of a continuum.
The images in the prints are of drawings that I made in a glass bottom tray device that I designed which allows me to expose directly onto large format film without a camera. There was no lens used in making the images. They are essentially contact prints of ink in water. For me, the prints point toward the fundamental principles of image formation in photography. They are also still-images about liquid and its connection to the medium.
HN: One of things that fascinate me is the relevance of light in this work. All photography is reliant on light, but the way light is utilized in these pieces is extreme. The “ink drawings” must be created in complete darkness. I imagine you sitting in a dark closet, dropping ink into a tray of liquid, flashing light to expose the latent image. The second process is actually making the contact print. Like you mentioned, at times the exposures can be up to three weeks in direct sun. Can you comment on this duality?
JO: Honestly, I’ve never consciously thought about that connection, but it is a really interesting one for sure. A duality in the process like that is probably a good thing. The pictures are about a balance in a lot of respects I guess—formally, conceptually. The negatives are made in a traditional darkroom setting, while the printing process takes place under very different circumstances. It can take up to 120 hours in direct sunlight to break the emulsion down enough to make a photograph. The image of the drawing is captured on film in less than a second. I see what you mean by “extremes.”
During the printing process, I have to pay attention to the weather and monitor the prints daily. They can only be made during the summer months when the sun is a its highest point in the sky. I suppose there is an interesting parallel between how the prints come into the world and witnessing plants in a garden do the same. I’m reminded of Jeff Wall’s image Poppies in a Garden, which is in the Art Institute’s collection. For me, that image is about the potential universe contained within the poppy. It’s also an image that draws connection to the latency you are talking about in photography. There is a delay between the time a photograph is made and when you see the negative or print. This is what happens to the gardener in the garden as well. I suppose my Anthotypes are somewhere around there in that they are about something provisional. I like to think that their point is also that they break from the observed world, like a hallucination.
HN: Speaking of “hallucination.” This break from the “observed” world, we can call a “secondary” experience or even a transcendence from the lived experience. Maholy Nagy uses of abstraction of light coupled with technology, exemplifies the idealistic and utopian thinking of a specific era. He coined the term “the New Vision” for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not. Is this a relevant conversation today?
JO: I think that every image is a secondary experience to an extent. I feel like photography has reached such a point of self-consciousness that we can agree that any kind of photograph, whether it’s a documentary image or a photogram, occupies a secondary, or abstract position.
At the same time though, I think what you’re getting at is a transcendence of observed experience. There is only so much that a lens-based image can describe, right? I guess that it’s the reason I have periodically revisited abstraction over the past 5 years or so. Despite their straightforward manner, I have always thought of my landscape pictures as being about a topography of interiority. I couldn’t quite get there though. I think I have always used abstraction to express what I couldn’t do with a straight photograph.
HN: The colors and images of the anthotypes have a “West Coast”/LA appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because I know they were made in the summer and we hung out a lot during the time of their creation so in some ways they resonant a certain level of nostalgia. But there is a history of west coast makers that use “west coast” light to influence their practices and works. I definitely make different types of work in the summer–perhaps due to the changes in color palette, a different energy, geographic location, longer days… Besides the fact that the sun is the strongest in the summer, I want to know: Does the sun and warmth solicit certain types of making practices or “types” of art for you? Is there such thing as summer art? If these were made in the winter, would they look aesthetically different?
JO: I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “summer art.” I thought about the Anthotypes all winter long! Although, making the work has definitely made me more aware of the changing of the seasons and of the Sun’s position and path across the sky. I feel like the process of producing the Anthotypes has really been a process of aligning myself with the seasonal cycle, probably a lot like a gardener or farmer would have to do.
HN: So I will ask you the same question I asked Barbara Kasten because it is relevant with your work (and I’d like to compare your answers). 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? Do you feel it’s important to explain this to people or ensure they know the works are not “manipulated”?
JO: Things are definitely changing, but I won’t say if it’s good or bad. For me it’s just happening. Digital is definitely erasing certain glitches and characteristics of analog photography, but it’s also creating its own set of peculiarities too. Digital is actually very close to surpassing film in most respects. What will eventually remain is the nostalgia for certain arbitrary properties—film grain, solarization, fogging, etc.
Actually, it’s not really important to me that people know how the images were fixed to the prints, although that is usually the first question people ask me. So how are these made? I could have captured the images on a digital device—actually that would have been a lot easier. There would have been fewer steps. The important thing is that they recorded fleeting compositions—whether that was achieved digitally or traditionally is not important. The fact is that I had to scan the film in order to produce larger printing negatives, so there actually was a digital step to this process. See, now we’re getting too hung up on process.
I’m not sure how abstraction is affected by the digital shift. Abstraction in photography is like abstraction in painting—its meaning shifts according to context—always. The way I use abstraction is different than how it functions in Barbara’s work and vice versa.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Her work has been exhibited all over Chicago in venues such as Monique Meloche Gallery, Dominican University, Northern Illinois University Gallery, and Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Nationally and internationally, Norton’s has been exhibited at the Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Knitting Factory in New York, as well as in Los Angeles, London, and Valenica, Spain. Norton was published in My Green City by Gestalten in 2011. This past year she had solo shows in San Francisco at Hungry Man Gallery and ebersmoore in Chicago. Her work will be included in the group show The World as Text at Columbia College Chicago, opening June 16th.
This past Monday, March 21st, photographer Michael L. Abramson died at the age of 62 after a long struggle with kidney cancer. The Chicago label Numero Group posted an obituary for Mr. Abramson, whose black and white photographs of 1970s era Chicago nightlife were part of Numero’s Grammy-nominated double album and book Light: On The South Side. In 2009 the New York Times’ “Lens” blog ran a lengthy showcase of Abramson’s photographs. There is something about the way Abramson photographed the press of bodies that makes everyone in his images look luscious and beautiful. He got right up close to his subjects – as a viewer, you feel like your own body is right in there too, smack in the middle of the action. Abramson’s family released a biography of the photographer after his death, which included this description of Abramson’s first encounters with the South Side clubs he would come to know intimately:
“A friend’s casual remark about the nightclub scene on the city’s South Side led Michael to visit, enjoy, and then photograph the people and nightlife. This decision established him as a serious artist, compared by more than one critic to Brassai, who photographed nocturnal Paris in the 1930s. At his first stop, Pepper’s Hideout, Abramson found himself the lone white guy in the club. Worried that he might make the other club visitors uncomfortable, he soon made for the door. As he left, a man yelled, “Hey, where ya’ going? Get back in here!” For the next two and half years Michael made frequent trips to Pepper’s and other South Side nightclubs. He spent his evenings snapping photograph after photograph – not of the musicians, but of patrons, many of them dressed to the nines, enjoying a night out on the town – and spent his days developing and printing the images.”
Do yourself a favor and spend some time this week looking at Abramson’s images, especially if you’re not already familiar with them. It’s clear the comparisons to Brassai are not at all specious.
Please take note: “The Woodmans,” the much-buzzed about documentary film by C. Scott Willis, has its Chicago premiere tonight at 6:15pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center and will be screened there daily through February 17th. We’ll have a review of the film up on the blog early next week. Francesca Woodman was a very promising artist who used her body, and those of other female models, frequently in her psychologically-charged black and white photographs. Woodman committed suicide in 1981, when she was still in her early twenties. What looks particularly fascinating about this documentary’s approach to its subject is its focus on the artist’s entire family unit, and hence the dynamic between the artist and her family, as a means of portraying the artist herself. Click on over to the film’s website for more background on the film; here’s the trailer, which really makes me want to run out and see it NOW:
Just dropping in to draw your attention to the fact that Caroline Picard is art:21 blog’s newest guest blogger. Caroline starts out with a bang with her interview of photographer Melanie Schiff. A brief excerpt follows; please hop on over to art:21 and check the full post out!
While always being aware of her work, Melanie Schiff snapped into focus shortly after I first heard about Ox-bow, the School of the Art Insitute’s residency program in Saugatuck, Michigan. Friends came back from a summer there looking a little wild. Melanie’s work–color-rich photographs of youths blending into trees, whiskey bottles glinting like a candle in a bath of morning sun–offers a portrait, not just of Ox-bow, but of a feral, post-adolescent youth. It would be inaccurate to distill her prolific energy into one characterization; her work is lush, well-composed and ever-sensitive to silky light. Those aesthetic concerns transcend specific subjects. In addition to empty skate-park landscapes and attic rooms, she has made self-portraits with bong hits, another with raspberry-nipples, another involves spewing water in the sun (always reminds me of Tony Tasset), or the one above, where she reclines in a sea of empty bottles glinting like a deteriorated Jeff Wall interior: these gestures position her-self-as-artist, approximately tied to a flanking landscape of, often exclusive, culture. Whether holding the Neil Young album before her head, or photographing a motel room once occupied by Kurt Cobain, her presence adds an idiosyncratic awareness to these cultural referents. In an effort to explore that affect, I asked her a series of questions, primarily about the camera and its gaze. This is one interview in a series of many that explores the self on either side of the camera, while thinking through the respective position of the artist. (Read more).