New York

Barbara Kassel

At first glance, Barbara Kassel’s work seems to have little in common with current art practice and its means of addressing the problem of subjectivity. Making no appeal to the effects of mass-media culture and its fetishization of the codes of reproduction, it refers instead to much older European traditions, in which narrative painting is intimately bound to an architectural context. The form of the work is reminiscent of the modest trecento or early quattrocento predella, more often than not encountered in museums as an object orphaned from its parent altarpiece. In addition to relatively straightforward interiors and landscapes, Kassel’s oil-on-canvas diptychs and triptychs contain those basic elements one might expect to find in a panel depicting a scene from the life of the Virgin—the monastic interior of a simple architectural structure in a landscape setting.

In this case, however, the Gothic building has mutated into a Catholicized pueblo adobe, the Tuscan landscape into the sagebrush and piñons, mesa and arroyos that distinguish the desiccated topography of the American Southwest. In this collapse of time and space into the gray zone of cultural memory, the relationship between architecture and landscape makes no sense until it is realized that the viewer is not positioned as if on the outside looking into an interior, but as if in an interior confronting a painted scene. This interior opens out into another that may simply contain a bench, a table, or a bed, and in which the “real” exterior, congruent with the horizon of the painted view, is glimpsed through a window. Kassel’s picture plane is thus synonymous with a frescoed surface whose architectonics, using a familiar Renaissance strategy, are an extension of its environment. The artist, moreover, mimics the state of desuetude common to most old frescoes and, through this simulation of decay—the flaking of the “fresco”—exposes yet another surface.

Within this oscillation of “real” and “illusory” surfaces and spaces, Kassel also inflects a displacement of time. In A Loss of Faith, 1986-87, it is the contemporary American landscape of ruined adobe and abandoned pickup that displays decay, while the “Renaissance” interior remains intact. Likewise, in The Astronomer’s Porch, 1986-87, the dead scene of a modem reservoir among the mesas appears to represent a people that have long since passed into history, or have perhaps disappeared into the fantasy of infinite space alluded to by the telescope. Either time has run backward, or we are projected into some indeterminate future with only the memory—or the ruins, as in The Last Migration, 1987—of the present. In any case, throughout these works there is no one in the picture. The room, whether it is a cell, or a bunker as in The Flood, 1986–87, remains unoccupied or abandoned. This spatiotemporal dislocation suggests a loss of tangible coordinates by which the subject may map its relation to the world, displaced to an existence dependent on memory and desire—a loss comparable to its more familiar expression in post-Modern practices.

Jean Fisher