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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|The hallway is flooded at Phillips Academy, one of America's oldest and most exclusive private schools, in Andover, Mass. The silvery surface of the water contrasts with the pale pink color of the walls and the delicate neo-classical moldings over the classroom doors. Four-by-five-foot photographs capture this eerie scene, one that is entirely invented by artist James Casebere. Along with constructed photographs of arched tunnels, they are on view at Grant Selwyn Fine Art in Los Angeles from May 23 to July 8.
Casebere is one of a group of artists who, in the late 1970s, began questioning the documentary capacity of photography. Instead of taking pictures of extant scenes, he built elaborate models and photographed them, presenting the prints rather than the constructions as his art. Other artists were coming up with similar strategies at the time -- Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince -- all departing from the tradition of straight photography and its commitment to reality.
Casebere, thin and cordial, with a cropped dark beard and sharp blue eyes, works in a roomy East Village apartment crowded with styrofoam and cardboard models of buildings. A view camera on a tripod, draped with a black drop cloth to block out light, is trained on the model interior of the Phillips' hallway.
He offers croissants bought that morning at the bakery near his house in Brooklyn, where he lives with artist Lorna Simpson and their baby daughter Zora. Inviting a visitor into his book-lined office, he flops onto a sofa and nervously explains the genesis of the new work, which is also on view through July 31 at the Phillips Academy's Addison Gallery of American Art in "The Architectural Unconscious: James Casebere + Glen Seator."
"I went up to Andover last fall and built two models based on different spaces I liked at the Phillips, the pink hall and the blue hall," he says. "Around the same time, I was doing pictures of flooded arches, which look as though they are underground. But in those pictures, the water looks like it belongs under the arches. The water doesn't look as though it belongs in the classrooms. To me, the imagery is Gothic."
The pictures are luminous with shades of iridescent pastel from the artificial light thrown on the poured resin water and the plaster walls. They seem a rapturous departure for Casebere, who has spent most of the last decade making sober pictures of prisons. Yet, they are part of his ongoing interest in using institutional architecture as metaphor for social, historical cultural inquiry.
Casebere's lengthy involvement with the subject of prison architecture recently led him to work with students to build an installation at the Mac in Dallas, Tex., on view through June 18 called "Prison/Dormitory/Dayroom: A Collaborative Project by Jame Casebere with Students of Southern Methodist University."
Growing up in Livonia, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, Casebere drew architectural plans and took industrial drafting classes. His father, who passed away in 1976, was an idealistic high school principal who worked with an architect on two occasions to design and build open-plan high schools in support of his progressive educational goals. Casebere went over the plans with his father and watched the building process. His mother taught elementary school. "It definitely had an effect. Our library at home was filled with the radical literature of the time, which I read," he says.
Casebere began photographing his constructions as an undergraduate at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he studied with architectural sculptor Siah Armajani. Casebere recalls, "My experience of art was primarily through photographs, so it made sense to photograph the things that I made. In part, it was living away from the centers of art and not seeing famous sculpture in Europe but seeing it reproduced. I read Andre Malraux's The Museum Without Walls, which was basically about the effect of photography on our perception and understanding of art and the notion that analysis had superceded admiration in one's experience of art as a result of photography. I think that idea was common currency in conceptual art circles at that time."
After graduating in 1976, he spent a year at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York then received his masters degree after two years at the California Institute of Arts in Valencia, where he was John Baldessari's teaching assistant. Returning to New York, he initially showed his photographed constructions at the Sonnabend Gallery. (He now shows with Sean Kelly gallery in SoHo.)
In 1984, he taught at Cal Arts and his return to the West, including several trips driving back and forth across the country, led to a series of frontier pictures of ranch buildings, covered wagons and split rail fences. "From the beginning, I was always looking for the origins of something in my work," he says. Much of this work was black and white and self-consciously artificial, more like stage sets than special effects, and presented as lightboxes.
Given his childhood associations with education and schools, the flooded classrooms of the Phillips Academy would seem to be psychological as much as historical symbolism. Casebere says, "I think that I was specifically doing something that relates to the uncanny, taking a comfortable place and looking at its flip side, creating unsettling emotions by depicting its demise. Ultimately, they look more like dream images. They aren't quite real."
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.