Los Angeles

James Casebere


James Casebere constructs and photographs scenes which call to mind childhood’s shadowy visions. He builds miniature tableaux from paper, fiberboard, plaster, and white paint, then lights and photographs them, eventually presenting the photos, blown-up and framed, in lightboxes. This is all we see: not the models themselves but photographic images at least twice removed from the artist’s original constructions. The work seems to have everything to do with the shaping of memory, its vulnerability to manipulation after the fact, and the relationship between photography, nostalgia, and reality. The lightboxes comment on the way emotionality can tint perception, causing some objects in an observed scene to recede, others to loom large; here, the artist has chosen for us which of the items we see will shrink and which will grow. These stark, dreamy scenes, devoid of color and human figures, are filled with simple, neutral-hued shapes: some abstract, others identifiable and mentioned in the titles of the works—chuck wagon, corral, apple, kitchen window: props from boyhood. The five pieces in this show look like slides from the mind of a young child. In Casebere’s previous works, the objects in the tableaux were more numerous, smaller, and placed in more intricate arrangements. The newer works seem less busy, more primal, and exude even more of the curious deadness, or absence, Casebere plays with. These lightboxes also seem less wistful than previous work, and sadder. The two pieces that bracketed the show, Kitchen Window with Fallen Tree and Sinking Canoe, and Fallen Tree with Sinking Canoe, both 1988, demonstrate this subtle transition from sigh to moan, from the charming to the melancholy, from what stands upright and remains buoyant to what topples and sinks. Some of the abstract shapes resemble kitchenware: wooden spoons, dinner plates. These solitary objects, carefully, almost compulsively placed, their surfaces a bit dusty like neglected toys, called to mind an almost forgotten time: when one first began to learn nouns, and stationary “things” seemed to reach out once named, to offer themselves or demand special attention, to grow larger before one’s eyes.

In such a world, which exists in some nether time zone between day and night, color would be an affront, too dazzling. The light and air in these tableaux feels like a drug, that when ingested (stared at) begins to dredge up something from memory that had lain there, uncontemplated, for a long time. Casebere’s particular brand of black-and-white conveys plenty of tension, but no violence. That occurs elsewhere, in a noisier place, although the creation of a sense of danger has been frequently attributed to Casebere’s work. There has always been something frightening or frightened, or both, about it. I wasn’t sure whether these recent, deceptively gentle-looking pieces derived their eerie quality from what they included, or from something omitted. In the two pieces mentioned above, a fallen tree almost embraces a sinking canoe with its smooth, armlike limbs—almost, but not quite. The canoe has sunk exactly halfway into what looks like black linoleum, and seems to have stopped there. Action and sound take place before or after these articulately stilled pictures. These deserted, haunted pseudolandscapes leave the viewer slightly mystified, yet drawn to them. Casebere has managed to call up in the viewer, via the soft geometry of his quasi-fetishistic scenes, the childhood notion (which some of us have never been able to shake) that every location, regardless of its apparent meaning or reality, is in fact only a cardboard set.

Amy Gerstler