It is often easier to understand and respond to art that is either very old or very new than to the work of the recent past, two or three decades ago. After all, we are living in the same moment as the contemporary artist, while the older artist can be safely placed in a historical context. But the recent past is unsettled terrain.
"Stages," the large retrospective of the work of Barbara Kasten, spotlights the artist, born in 1936, at three points in her career: the 1970s, the mid-1980s, and the beginning of the 21st century. I find the oldest and the newest most compelling, although it is the work of the mid-1980s for which she is best known, and it is what dominates this show.
Kasten's most characteristic work consists of photographs of abstract spaces she constructed at full size in her studio. Thus, while she is accurately described as a photographer, what she photographs are sculptures she has made and lighted with great care. Kasten, who began her professional career as a window dresser, is a conjurer of imaginary spaces.
Perhaps the best way to understand what she does is to go directly to the far corner of the exhibition to see Axis, a work she created for this show. It is a kinetic projection in which interlocking squares cast complex shadows and metamorphose into a tall pyramid shape. It gives the tall gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, an architecture and a texture it never had before. It is not an electronic experience, but one you inhabit.
By contrast, all the rest of the works in the show are like windows into other worlds. They are not the kind of digital manipulations to which we have become accustomed, but rather, relentlessly analogue artifacts. Some were created with technologies that were recently innovative but are now antique, such as large-format Polaroid images. All are products of a bygone world where photographic images were born wet.
Some of the show's strongest works, a series called Photogenic Paintings, from the mid-1970s, use photographic materials, but no camera. Kasten, who previously had been working with fabrics, manipulated mesh directly on photographic paper to create images that might be billowing brocades from a baroque painting, but clearly aren't.
Such photograms are a throwback to some of the practices of the early modernist masters, and there is a tension in her work between Bauhaus principles of fidelity to materials and transparency of technique and intense theatricality. Her recent work has returned to the restrained palette and subtle depiction of textures, folds, and incisions found in her earlier work.
But the mid-1980s were a particularly theatrical time, when artists, and especially architects, became preoccupied with producing topsy-turvy historical pastiche, full of Corinthian columns, candy colors, and zebra stripes. This is when Kasten produced her Constructs, large-scale scenes full of pyramids, shards, mirrors, and architectural elements, transformed by light into otherworldly distillations of what post-modern designers were trying to achieve. These lurid polychrome images are perfect embodiments of the tendencies of the time. But when I look at them today, they seem to be on the cutting edge of cake decoration - dazzling and bad for you.
Her affinity for post-modern architecture led to an assignment from Vanity Fair to photograph recent major buildings by star architects. The article was never published, but it led to a remarkable series called Architectural Sites. She spent long periods in notable new buildings, such as Atlanta's High Museum, designed by Richard Meier, and New York's World Financial Center, by Cesar Pelli. She shined bright yellow, orange, and magenta lights on them, and produced prints based on multiple exposures. The results aren't literal photographs of the buildings, but portraits that reveal their intellectual incoherence, their moral emptiness.
Upstairs at the ICA, for one week more, are several installations on political themes. Installation art, like window dressing, attempts, through the carefully staged presentations of existing materials, to evoke a way of being and seeing. But while this is an effective way to communicate a style or an attitude, can it say anything serious about an issue like Palestinian resistance to Israel?
That is the subject of "The Incidental Insurgents" by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, who, according to the ICA's handout, "take the contemporary moment in Palestine as a starting point to address the eclipse of political radicalness and the search for a new political imaginary." I wouldn't have said, offhand, that an "imaginary" is what's needed there, but the two cluttered rooms on show here do make a case that dissidence inevitably has an aesthetic element. These rooms, whose contents mix tactics, theory, and art, convey the message that radical political action springs from a search for identity, a style of being and thinking.
Meanwhile, in her section of the three-artist exhibition "Traces in the Dark," Deanna Bowen presents documentation of the Ku Klux Klan's activity in Pennsylvania through 1963. It also includes periodic reenactments of an interview with Robert Shelton, former Imperial Wizard of the Klan. Her dry, text-based presentation is, she says, a reaction against "hypervisuality."
If there were ever a case when visual analysis is called for, though, it would be the Klan. Its costumes and its rituals are among the most potent combinations of terror and anonymity ever created. When I did some stories on local hate groups in 1971, I met several members, none of them impressive. But one night, at a rally in Rising Sun, Md., I saw them put on their robes, mount white horses, light their torches, and ride. They were transformed and empowered. It was a scary-beautiful spectacle, a true design of darkness to appall.
I also interviewed the wizard, Robert Shelton himself, in his Winnebago. I don't remember a thing he said, only that the camper was overrun with gnats. Every time Shelton opened his mouth to expostulate on the evil of the Jew, and the subhumanity of the Negro, gnats flew into his mouth and made him choke and cough. That was a hypervisual moment indeed.
Art: THREE AT ICA
Barbara Kasten: Stages
Through Aug. 16
The Incidental Insurgents
Through next Sunday
Traces in the Dark
Through next Sunday
The Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St.
Hours: 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Information: 215-898-7108 or www.icaphila.org.