The Frances Dittmer Series on Contemporary Art
James Casebere’s photographs evoke our deepest fears and longings. He builds tabletop models that mimic the appearance of archetypal institutions (home, school, library, prison), or archetypal architectural tropes (tunnel, corridor, archway). In Casebere’s photographs, these miniatures often appear to be actual structures. Their serial narratives bear a particularly European, existential angst in spite of the artist’s affinity for American subjects such as the Western frontier and Jefferson’s Monticello. And while his influences seem far flung, from French New Wave cinema to conceptual American art and the early 20th-century Bauhaus and Constructivists, his work feels organically unified. Perhaps this is because his images captivate our collective imagination, the one ruled by instinct.
The first time I saw James Casebere’s latest larger-scale works, as I strolled past the showstopping presentations at the massive New York Armory show, I immediately recognized his moody light and fabricated architecture; but in the form of a wall-sized panel, the work seemed unfamiliar. I inspected the images, blown-up views into Southern plantation interiors, at close range. As I backed away, I was struck by how the visibility of cracks and seams lent an ambiguity to the work’s formal construction. The leap of faith necessary to understand Casebere’s art was now center stage, compelling the viewer to ask himself: Do I believe what I see? Or don’t I?
Like life, art is relative, and we all struggle with issues of faith and truth, with no easy answers. But in his new body of work James Casebere creates a tension that can only be resolved one way: on faith. I call for more public funding for faith-based art.
Roberto Juarez I read that your first show was at Artists Space in 1979. Can you describe it for me?
James Casebere The show at Artists Space took place during my last semester at CalArts. Ten photographs were meant to work together, visually, formally, narratively—to read like a storyboard for a film. Each image was another episode in an epic tale. (laughter) But they were very mundane. The models I made and then photographed were goofy, childlike, handmade and playful. Visually, it was meant to operate as a whole; there are formal relationships between each image that one doesn’t see in reproduction.
RJ You said the images were goofy.
JC They weren’t meant to be, but it was a relatively autobiographical story about a suburban, white, middle-class kid from the Midwest who moves to New York to be an artist. I guess that’s how I saw myself. The images began with a colonial revival house from the fifties, and moved to spaces like a playground and a college dormitory, then on to images that represented falling in love, sickness, death, and then a commitment to something—in this case it was art—as represented by a TV, video cameras, movie screens and tape players, the media. And then there was an image of someone hopping a freight train. The final image was the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in New York, as seen from a departing ferry. A reversal of the famous Stieglitz photograph of the Staten Island Ferry as it arrives.
RJ A lot of your images have to do with public arenas and are displayed in public situations. Was it all there, already…or not?
JC Perhaps it was. Later, in 1982, I used the Staten Island terminal waiting room as the first place to do an installation of commercial style light boxes.
RJ The dormitory also rings a bell, housing that has to do with units and multiples. Some of the first images I saw of yours were the models of prisons that you built and photographed. They were almost abstract. I’m very interested in public art and the relationship of art to the mass public, not just the art audience. How did those light boxes work for you once you installed them in the waiting room?
JC I thought it worked well. There was no text panel in association with the light boxes that explained their content or told the audience that they were art. They were a mystery to the viewing public.
RJ And that was part of it?
JC That was part of it. They were all back lit, black-and-white photographs. Something like 70,000 people a day go through the terminal, it’s a big hall. And it’s on Manhattan’s periphery—on the Staten Island side of the bay.
RJ Didn’t you do a series of light boxes in Penn Station, also?
JC Yes, years later. I think it was 1990.
RJ And did it change significantly from the first experience?
JC It did. After my installation on Staten Island, a local arts organization got the idea that they should put art in there on a regular basis. So the context had changed by the time I did the next one. For this project, the Public Art Fund got use of 11 existing commercial light boxes in the Long Island Railroad waiting room at Penn Station. They weren’t being used commercially, so they wanted to turn them over to artists. I think William Wegman did the first installation, I did the second.
RJ I have my ideas of why you used black-and-white photographs in your earlier work, but tell me—why did you use black and white instead of color?
JC Black and white had more to do with memory and the past. Color was too much about the present, I associated it with color TV, which was not a part of my past. I wanted the images to be related to a sense of history, let’s say, whether personal or social. And I think black and white adds a certain level of abstraction.
RJ What were the images, in the Penn Station installation?
JC Most of it was a synthesis between two bodies of work, a combination of domestic space in the foreground with romantic, faraway places in the background. I tried, in part, to simulate the experience of sitting on a train, looking out the window. But the foreground might also be a dining room, or a kitchen, or a café.
RJ How did you create that? Was it a layering of pictures through exposure, or was it from a model that you built?
JC I built a model. Half the time, there’d be a frame dividing the foreground from the background. The backgrounds were images of the American West, corrals, and also one image of a sinking canoe, and one which was simply an outdoor train platform. There was a mission facade in another image. I was trying to create a sense of wistful reverie.
RJ The West is a very romantic idea in the American psyche. I’ve gotten invitations to submit proposals for light boxes in train stations. It’s become such a fad, or an easy art form for public projects to take on, because it’s not that expensive. But you were early.
JC I used a light box for a show I did at Franklin Furnace in 1981. It sat in the window, facing the street. I was never interested in the context of a fine art photo gallery. I was really interested in the usefulness of art—in a Constructivist sense, or as in the Bauhaus or de Stijl. What all these movements shared—and they overlapped, of course—was the belief that art should not be broken up into separate disciplines. An artist might make paintings, design buildings, do graphics, photographs and sculpture. It was very multimedia. They also shared the belief that an artist had a purpose, a usefulness within the context of the larger society. I was looking at how art worked within the larger social world and wanted to place my work where most people see other photographs. So I wanted to put my images into the advertising context, the way conceptual artists like Dan Graham were using pages in a magazine as their art. The magazine is one kind of public space, street signs are another. I wanted to design things that relate to people’s everyday experience. People like Dennis Adams and Jeff Wall began using light boxes at about the same time as myself. Adams actually designed the public spaces, the bus shelters, to show them in. There were Holzer’s broadsides, and Barbara Kruger’s billboards. It was the same impulse. We were all thinking about mass media. One of the first images I shot in New York was of a courtroom which I made into a poster, and put up anonymously around Lower Manhattan. There was that anonymous poster phenomenon going on in the Lower East Side at that time.
RJ There was a lot of what was called street art in the ’80s. Basquiat and Keith Haring put stuff out on the street at that time.
JC They were a bit younger than me. I loved the political posters that had no relation to the art world as I knew it, and those posters preceded Keith Haring and Basquiat. They may have been responding to the same thing.
RJ That’s not the program now. I saw your last show. There are a lot of big pictures, which are also gorgeous as objects.The way you relate to the everyday is through sociopolitical content. And yet, something’s changed.
JC That’s part of it. Early on I was very interested in the potential for art to be useful in terms of social change. My heart is still in the realm of art that…I don’t know… That’s a good question: what has changed? From the beginning I had a tendency to conflate personal and social history—or psychological and political content. The “gorgeous” nature of these new objects is part of this content. Is it not possible to make critical art that is an expression of freedom, rather than denial? Why can’t critical art embrace the senses, beauty or emotion? But, to get back to the early eighties, I felt like I was between two worlds. I lived on Ludlow Street and hung out with the more leftist Co-lab group, taking part in the Times Square show and the Real Estate show on Delancy Street on New Years, 1980. Joseph Beuys came to the opening. But as a student I came out of what felt like the more career-oriented CalArts. And then I was interested in conceptual artists who were moving into the realm of architecture: Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim, Mary Miss, and Alice Aycock.
RJ Right, but we’re talking about sculptural work.
JC These are conceptual artists who became sculptors. They were a big influence on me.
RJ You make models that sit somewhere between architecture and sculpture. I mean, I’m sitting here with you in your studio, and we’re surrounded by all these structures that you’ve made; do you call them models?
RJ They’re objects in space, three-dimensional objects that became, through being photographed, illusions or more than simply what they are physically. Maybe that’s how you’ve translated the space. Do you see Aycock’s and Graham’s influence in your structures?
JC Conceptually, I was following a similar trail. I got more interested in architecture after getting out of undergraduate school. But I looked at the activity I was engaged in as related to installation or performance, because the set or the model I used was temporary, and the image of the set was what most viewers experienced. And that was true for performance artists and installation artists at the time. I simply continued to work the model—that became more and more a part of the pursuit.
RJ Continue that thought, please. The model exists to make this illusion or image but the images that you’re making now are getting to be quite gorgeous things in themselves, objects. That is something that has changed.
JC You know, part of my program early on was that the seams had to show. That you would suspend disbelief when looking at the object or the image, but the way it was made still had to be clear to the viewer. My models were always clearly models. This is a Constructivist idea; you don’t hide the construction. It’s a Godardian idea, too. This is a value that he held as a filmmaker: you allow the viewer to step back and have a certain critical distance from the experience. You’re not swept away emotionally by the heat of the moment the way you are with a filmmaker like Spielberg.
RJ In Fassbinder’s films, as well, you see the smeared lipstick. You see the shadows of the lights, the actors are allowed to ramble too long.
JC Right, exactly. It was a simple thing that I did, basically. Up until about 1991, I’d also been doing large-scale sculptural installations which turned into big projects. With the recession, the money dried up in the museums for those kind of installations. So I began to concentrate on the photographs again, exclusively. I simply moved indoors with the images, and pared away all the extraneous information, so that I ended up with only this prison, this one room, this cell. There weren’t any textures or colors or complicated forms that I was trying to depict. And as a result, the image looked quite real, because the plaster that I was using looked like cement. Suddenly it was impossible to see the seams as clearly, and even when I showed the seams, that added to the illusion. I started shooting these all-white models with color film. It was easier to suspend disbelief, I guess; they became a bit more sensuous.
RJ Something happens to your pictures when they’re blown up. This illusion that’s created: this is a model but this is also about something that the model alludes to—that leap of faith is more focused in the larger, most recent pictures. A viewer might ask: Am I really in this room? Am I in Monticello? Because the viewer is almost engulfed by the image. And even if you don’t know it’s a replica of an entry room in Monticello, you subliminally think Monticello. What brought you into that sort of architecture? It’s very different from previous work that was based on prison structures.
JC A couple of interests converged: when I was working on the prison images, I was thinking about the circulation of air, water and people, and the way that different plans for prisons developed out of those concerns, beginning in the 18th century. Ventilation and clean air became a concern in the workplace, and in hospitals and other institutions like poorhouses and prisons, partly as a result of the new knowledge that germs are airborne and partly with the advent of indoor plumbing. Enlightenment architects designed workers’ communities and placed the smokestacks strategically to expel foul air up and beyond the housing. Tony Vidler’s book The Writing of the Walls got me thinking about a lot of these issues when I was spending more time in Europe in the late eighties. As my work progressed, after the initial prison cells, I began making images that were about that directly: hallways, corridors, and eventually the flooded hallways and flooded tunnels that also related to that concern.
RJ How’s that? I mean, the flooding is a psychological element in your work that I saw for the first time in your recent show at Sean Kelly’s new gallery. Your show inaugurated that space, and set off an architectural statement, too. There was this brand new gallery space designed by Steven Learner, with your huge pictures floating in it. Where did the image of flooding come from?
RJ I feel like Joan Rivers, “Come on, I know about the prison pictures, let’s get to the flooding!”
JC The flooding was about the toilets in prisons.
JC Well, partly. I spent a lot of time in the early nineties at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Indoor plumbing systems are an important and relatively recent phenomenon. I did this body of work that I’ve never shown, following the movement of air through the ventilation systems. A couple of years ago I went to Berlin and ended up making pictures based on the Berlin underground, the subway, the sewers and the bunkers.
RJ It’s an amazing system, huge.
JC First, I tried to use water to fill up these images of sewers. It didn’t really work, visually. Maybe I just hadn’t gotten used to the idea of adding that kind of reflective surface to an image. The images that I finally shot based on the Berlin sewers are dry. The first image where I did use water was the flooded hallway which is based on photographs of flooded bunkers under the Reichstag. The water as a metaphor is about the passage of time. It’s about temporality. But it’s also about emotion, an excess of emotion. Whereas the prison images for me were about deprivation and a sense of poverty, the flooded images were about some sense of fullness. Maybe it’s a fear of drowning. It’s also a sense of overflow—good or bad—but movement.
RJ Or loss. I mean, space lost. Once something is flooded, you can’t really go into it. What comes up when you see a flooded space is a dream. Do you hate this?
JC No, no, it’s okay.
RJ That’s what happens, the picture opens your mind to associations that aren’t normal, like something you would encounter in a dream. What it stands for comes into question. I guess you’re talking about memory, but memory of what? Let’s get back to Monticello.
JC I was making images that were still very minimal, like the flooded hallway, when I was invited to do an exhibition at the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. I was commissioned to do something based on the place. So I spent a bit of time looking at different buildings on campus, and chose two classroom buildings from which to build models. The pink and the blue hallway are both images from that same show—and I flooded those spaces. Those spaces led me to Monticello; stylistically those buildings refer to that same moment in time.
RJ So those photographs that look like ornate flooded reception rooms are from Andover?
JC Yeah. For me, this was like a step backward into the preminimal work that I had been doing. It was difficult to do, but I started using color, the pink and the blue, and ornamental details from these neoclassical spaces. That quickly led me to Monticello. And there are a whole bunch of personal reasons why Monticello ended up as the image.
RJ Is it because Jefferson’s lover was a slave?
RJ There is sociopolitical context to your work. You’re very dry, and careful about how issues come up. Or poetic. Careful sounds like you’re coy whereas you’re very strategic. That’s part of your success as an artist. And in some of these colonial settings that you evoke in the photographs, there is this kind of, “Is this a plantation? What’s going on here?”
RJ Oh, and I might add that one of your graces is that you have heavy material, but at the same time you have humor. Some of what you present is almost ridiculous.
JC I was trying to do entry spaces, so I moved from the corridor in the hallway at Addison to the entry hall at Monticello, which is a large, open rectangular space much like a gallery. Jefferson did treat it like a museum. The doors were frequently left open; anybody who came to visit, invited or not, could just walk through the house. And while I photographed it empty, it was chock full of things that he had collected on his travels, or things that people brought him from across the continent. It was a museum. So I was trying to reflect on the new gallery, that’s one angle. The photograph of the Japanese room, which is a parlor, is very much in the same spirit. It’s an entry hall, in many ways.
RJ To a private home?
JC Yes, built by a wealthy business merchant in the 19th century. It’s a very generic Japanese space, but that’s where the model comes from.
RJ Jefferson designed Monticello, he was the architect of his own house. It was extremely unique, made to his specifications and his needs. Is understanding Jefferson’s personality part of your interest in Monticello? I mean, there’s such history around it.
JC Jefferson and Monticello are mythic. A lot of the work that I’ve done is related to this search for origins, and Jefferson represents the origin of an American self-image. Which is to say that he tried to create, essentially, an image for the American experience, including American architecture, which became the prototype for a lot of other buildings.
RJ Your image is not a Monticello with all the busts and brocades that he filled it with. It’s flooded, and it’s dark and misty. It’s haunted. It’s a dark picture. Am I bringing too much to it?
JC No, not at all. It’s also about the re-evaluation of Jefferson, historically. Certainly Sally Hemmings is part of that.
RJ And their children?
JC And the children, yeah. But the truth is that it was not that uncommon. Sally Hemmings may have been one-eighth black. There was a lot of intermarriage going on there. What interested me about Jefferson and the early 18th century as a whole was that it was a period when this country’s slave system was created. Jefferson wasn’t the unlucky inheritor of an oppressive system that he couldn’t get out of—not entirely. He was a major player in the creation of an economic system throughout the Atlantic, between England and Africa and the Caribbean and Virginia. That period in history needs to be reevaluated: we need to look beyond the myth of what Jefferson represents, and that’s what the darkness you see is about. It’s about the end of the myth. The end of the idealization of a founding father. After the Addison experience, I went with some friends to Nevis, an island in the Caribbean. It was an English colony, but in the 18th century it was also a major slave trading center, second only, in fact, to Charleston. The entire island was a huge agricultural center. Alexander Hamilton was born there. It’s this era of colonialism that you can’t forget when you’re there. People live on the ruins of these old plantations, and the ruins are everywhere. Admiral Nelson was married on the grounds of the particular house we rented with some friends. And the cottage that we were staying in was the house where his wife was born. I don’t want to get too off the track, but the point is there’s all this English colonial history there.
JC And all this is happening at the same time that Jefferson is building Monticello in Virginia. I had brought a book with me about Monticello. I had the book in my hands, and the friend we stayed with, who rented the house, said, “Where did you get that book?” As it turns out, the man who wrote the book is the owner of the house. And the house itself was based on many of the principles that Jefferson used in designing Monticello! (laughter) It was a funny coincidence.
RJ Like you’re chasing ghosts, ghosts of architecture and ghosts of history.
JC They were chasing me. I mean, in a way it was chance. But…
RJ But not. The lies about the slave period of America are something. I think for you as an artist this goes back to the beginning, when you wanted to deal with real things and real life. You’re married to an African-American woman who is also an artist. That makes your art real, to me, it makes it more powerful. You guys talk about your art?
JC Yeah, but I’m not sure how to talk about that beyond the fact that it does make the issues a bit more real to me. You go to a place like that to escape, enjoy the climate and relax, and suddenly you’re face-to-face with something that you didn’t expect. It didn’t seem like the perfect garden of Eden that the islands are often made out to be.
RJ In Mexico, it’s hard for me to get a good table when I go to restaurants. They think I should not be in the white section, because I look more Indian than white. Have you ever felt any discrimination, as a couple, when you travel to the Caribbean?
JC Well, in Nevis, in August, there aren’t many tourists, a small minority of white people live there year round, and they tend to be English. And they tend to be the people with the expensive houses, running the hotels and resorts. But most of the people are black. There were funny things that happened with the local people we encountered. For example, we were in the car with our friends, who are white, and English, and we stopped to say hello to an elder black fellow that they knew, and when this black guy saw my partner in the backseat with our daughter he said, “Who is this, your cook?” (laughter)
RJ How did she take it?
JC I can’t speak for her. I’m white and I don’t personally feel discriminated against. I’m aware of this.
RJ You would be very, very mad if your child were discriminated against.
JC Absolutely. But I have felt that more often on the Upper East Side of New York than anywhere else, frankly.
RJ I think your art is about some of these issues.The prison images have a lot to do with race. If you think about who’s in prison and who’s being executed in America—that has to do with race. Race is not a new issue in your work.
JC That’s true, even going back to an image like Sutpen’s Cave from 1982. The image isn’t explicitly about race, but you have the juxtaposition of a plantation house with what I thought of as the “holler”; the sharecropper versus the plantation owner. It’s about the dichotomy between rich and poor.
RJ In a lot of the flooded, plantation-like pictures—and Monticello was more a plantation image—I could smell the humidity. That’s what’s amazing about some of your pictures, you can smell the mood or atmosphere. You made large and small versions of the pictures. What’s the difference?
JC Size is about context. It’s not that there’s an ideal size for an image, but there’s a time and a place for a particular size. Over the last few years, I’ve generally shown a combination of different sizes in each exhibition, all of which are placed in relationship to one another in a configuration that relates to the gallery itself. I’ve done that for a number of years. The size varies from two by three feet to eight by twelve.
RJ There’s a very different effect. I don’t think it’s just the context of the room’s size, but what happens to the viewer in this context.
JC I was trying to create a physical relationship between the viewer and the work, which would allow the viewer to enter into the space. And with the larger work, I was trying to do something with the room, to use images that relate formally to the architectural context of a gallery. With the Japanese room, Parlor, there’s an attempt to relate to the ceiling, and the stylistic origin of this type of Modernism. And with Pink Hallway or Monticello, I’m making what looks more like a dollhouse, and blowing it up to a size that is larger than life.
RJ So there are two experiences. The viewer enters the picture through its physical size, and the picture enters the viewer.
JC I hope so.
RJ That’s happened to me, actually. If you’d photographed people standing in front of the pictures at your opening, it would have looked as if they were in the spaces. So what is a digital chromatic print?
JC All of the images are now drum-scanned and printed from files on what’s called a Lambda printer. It’s a laser-printing process, from a digital file.
RJ So all the prints in the show were digital?
JC Yeah. It changes things. It’s easier, in many ways to control, but on the other hand, all the work that used to be darkroom work is now done on Photoshop. In addition to that, because I build these models, I can take the chrome, scan it and clean it up on the computer, rather than having to come back to the model and reshoot something if I’m unhappy with it. I finish the model on the computer now, to a certain extent.
RJ And if the lighting isn’t quite right you can darken it, or lighten it.
JC Yeah, it’s daunting at first, because there are so many possibilities.
RJ I’ve got a title.
JC A title, It’s Daunting at First?
RJ No, this is “The New Faith-Based Art.” It is. There’s a certain kind of faith you have in the illusion, and in the viewer.
JC Initially, with some of the prison images, people began to interpret the beams of light as a transcendental light from above. When I showed them in Europe, people asked me if I was religious, because the images were based on church naves. For me, they were about the relationship between the Quakers and the origin of the prison. The Quaker reform movement of the early 19th century led to the adaption of incarceration as the primary form of punishment—as a substitute for things like public humiliation, torture, mutilation, and public executions. And so I wanted to evoke that sense of light from above, and the historic relationship between the Quaker idea of an individual dialogue with God and their notion that criminals would mend their ways if placed in isolation and limited to visits from Quaker ministers alone. What interested me was that the system was a failure as far as rehabilitation was concerned. Many criminals did not share Quaker values, experience, etcetera, and were simply driven insane by solitary confinement. I was trying to point to the prison system as a cultural and historical artifact, that we in the 20th, or now 21st century were again free to change having learned from the failures of the past. So, aside from evoking feelings of fear, relief, confinement, or solitude, etcetera, in the viewer, my use of that reference was very specific. There is a big difference between voluntary and involuntary confinement. So, anyway I’m not exactly a Christian and recently tried to get away from that sense of divine light. In many of the newer images the light comes from the side. And perhaps the Japanese room was the perfect way to make it more grounded, because it solved another problem that I had, which was how to look out a window. Or how to include a window as a light source, without seeing what’s outside. With the Shoji screen I could have light just emanating from beyond, soft and diffused. You don’t think you should be seeing what’s outside because it’s paper, not glass. So that solved those two problems for me.
RJ So instead of God God, there’s something that I read, that’s very influential to you: space as God.
JC Well, that’s true.
RJ See, you’re back to faith.
JC But that was a criticism about the way modernists dealt with space. Venturi used that term in talking about Modernism, because he felt that space was treated like God. It was sacrosanct, whereas he wanted to deal with architecture as an image, as a sign system.
RJ Would you consider yourself more Modernist than Postmodern?
JC I would now. I confuse the issue a bit with Monticello and the pink hallway. But, otherwise, yes. I went through that period of thinking about sign systems instead of space and light. But I’m interested in both, at this point. Not Postmodernism per se, but some of the issues involved. Place and time, as well as…
—Roberto Juarez is a Chicago-born artist living and working in New York. His work is frequently exhibited around the country, most recently in a solo show of new paintings in Aspen, Colorado. He is currently part of a group show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland, and is represented by the Robert Miller Gallery. He was named a Guggenheim fellow this May.