Amanda Ross-Ho: Full disclosure: I spent the whole evening with your beautiful new book last night, which was published on the occasion of your recent retrospective at the ICA Philadelphia [Barbara Kasten: Stages]. I delved deep into some of the essays in there, in anticipation of this conversation, and realized that I’ve been such a fan of yours for a long time. Even though our work is so different, in a purely aesthetic kind of assessment, I think some of the underlying foundational concerns are actually very similar.
I think that one obvious place to start is with the fact that we’re from the same city, Chicago. In some ways it’s just a logical place to begin in terms of influence—this idea of being from the Midwest.
Barbara Kasten: Yes, I was born in Chicago and I am living in Chicago now, but I left when I was just out of high school and moved to Arizona with my parents. Many people associate me with California more than they do with the Midwest. My art practice started there after graduate school at California College of Arts and Crafts [now the California College of the Arts] in 1970. My experiments in photograms and Constructions began in Los Angeles where I lived and taught for ten years. However, Chicago was important in my early development. My childhood teachers saw artistic potential in me, encouraged me, and implanted the idea of becoming an artist. I attended the University of Arizona and then moved to California, Europe, back to California, and then to New York before returning to Chicago in 1998. I didn’t expect it to be a permanent move but that’s what happened. It’s become a full circle!
How long were you in Chicago before you moved to California?
ARH: I was in Chicago until 2004. I’d taken some long trips away from the city but Chicago was my home base until I moved to Los Angeles for graduate school at USC [The University of Southern California] and then never left. That was a surprise because I had applied to a bunch of programs and it was a little bit of a dice roll as far as where I would end up in the world. My immediate family is still in Chicago, so I go there relatively often. It still remains kind of a home base, to some degree, even though L.A. is definitely more home to me now.
BK: When I came back to Chicago after living in New York for 18 years, I was considered a New Yorker for a short time. It was a bit challenging to come back to my roots! But Columbia College Chicago was very supportive of me as an artist and the interaction with students was rewarding. Now, after retiring [from teaching], I have a wonderful studio and close friends. Chicago is a beautiful city and a great location; I can maintain distant relationships and also be part of an active art community.
ARH: I think one of the things that’s interesting for me is that now—even though I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 11 years or so—I do still feel like Chicago is an important part of my mainframe. I think I carry a bit of whatever that is with me all the time. I’ve described it over the years as a Midwestern sensibility. I think another way to describe it is, for me, there was a very strong work ethic I felt in my time as a young adult in Chicago. Becoming an artist had to do with a very specific kind of condition that was happening there at that time, in the mid-to-late ‘90s—a very self-starting, alternative arts kind of moment that was really about the lack of a market mechanism in the city.
For me, and the artists I was working alongside at that time, there was a feeling—and maybe this is a little idealistic—that had to do with integrity and a shared community. There was a healthy competition and a healthy critical dialogue between everyone, and it was really a “love of the game” type of enterprise where everyone was working very hard at making their work. No one expected to make a living from their work. Very few people who we knew were able to do that, and those who did had left the city to do it.
One thing that I appreciate about having come of age in Chicago at that time is that I feel like it gave me a stable foundation. I knew that the work came first regardless of the way that it ended up going out into the world and being received. The reception of the work was important, of course, conceptually; but it wasn’t the way I placed value on my work. The work was evaluated on its conceptual foundations, and that was what made it meaningful and valuable. I think that’s a real thing that I took from that place, and continue to.
BK: When I was growing up and thinking about the future, the circumstances were different than today. I came from a middle-class family and no one in our past had been a serious artist. Lifestyle choices were practical. It was unusual for the time—first of all, being a woman and thinking about a career, let alone thinking of a career as an artist. The first step forward was going to college. Then I took another step to major in fine art. Well, that was really out of left field!
ARH: It was a radical thing.
BK: Yes, for the generation that I came from, women were homemakers. In today’s world, people think more about their own personal ambitions and doing what’s most important to fulfill their interests. When I went to college, I had very supportive parents. Needless to say, I probably got my way pretty often. If I wanted to study art, well, they didn’t actually know what that was going to mean, but the expectation was that I would probably still get married and have children. Luckily for me, they never pressured me to do that.
By the time you came along, Amanda, society was more accepting if a woman desired to be more than just a wife and a mother. You studied with serious intent towards being an artist; I didn’t know what being an artist really meant. I only knew I liked to make things and to paint. Sewing and designing my own clothes was one of my passions. You probably had more of an idea of what it meant to be an artist. Not to put words in your mouth, but I think, at least in a sense, that’s the way you talk about it—you worked towards that goal, right?
ARH: Absolutely. I think generationally, as you describe, that’s for sure the case. Also, both of my parents were artists and my mother had carved out a very specific space for herself as a woman artist in that she helped to start a bunch of alternative art spaces in the early 1970s in Chicago. Both of my parents had a very firm relationship to the art world, as they saw it, in that city. For me, I was inheriting that legacy and inheriting the kind of work that they had already done in those realms, and, like a relay race, picking up the baton and pushing that forward. Both of them had very distinct practices. My mom was a photographer and my father was a painter and a photographer, which is something we could talk about for a long time, probably, as far as it’s impact on my work. As a young person, watching them negotiate their experiences within their own practices—that certainly is a different foundation than finding an internal desire to make art where there isn’t necessarily a precedent.
BK: It’s interesting to see that we’re now on the same page even though we came from such different places. There’s a generational divide but we also have a generational connection!
Your macramé pieces really caught my attention because macramé in my day was considered a hobby. I studied textiles at California College of Arts and Crafts in the late 1960s, and at that time you would never dream of making macramé. It was something that people made to hang their flowerpots in, not something that was part of any art experience. You translated a history with those pieces that I can relate to personally.
When you started to reach back into the 1970s, tell me what it was that you were looking for. How did that happen, that you went looking for objects that were more of your parents’ period than of your own?
ARH: The macramé works were about reaching back into a history that did not belong to me, but they were also about seeing what I could access from this inherited database of imagery that I kept finding over and over in thrift stores, in vintage how-to textile manuals from the ’60s and ’70s. I was pulling the pictures out of them. I didn’t have access to any of the objects themselves; these are all about translating photographs and recording the generational losses and gains. The process of making them was also about the labor that went into the original handmade textiles. Those works are drawn and then painted and cut, so there’s an element of re-creating them by hand—in a different medium of course, with paint and canvas.
BK: That’s what I loved about what you did with the retro technique. Without that, you’d just be repeating without translating.
ARH: It’s interesting, because you and I both have a background in textiles, and for me it even precedes those macramé works. When I was at SAIC [The School of the Art Institute of Chicago] and floating around the school—which, as you know, has many different departments and you don’t really need to claim a major—I moved around between photography, sculpture, and other areas, but I ended up spending most of my time in the fiber department. I was inadvertently looking for a new media department because my work was already becoming so interdisciplinary, and the fiber department allowed for the most experimentation. It became a convenient place to embark on material investigations that weren’t fixed in one medium. It also exposed me to some traditional textile practices that were happening within the department and started an interest that extended through to the macramé works.
After school I worked for about four years as a textile designer, but my interest in textiles came more to the conceptual forefront in graduate school at USC, when I was thinking about how to talk about the idea of anatomy and structure. For example, how do you really understand something from the inside out? Anatomy is something I think about quite a bit in all of the work, but with textiles what I’m interested in is related to this idea of building a totality. The structure of a macramé, which is this totality made up of all these specific points, to me was a diagrammatic way to think about connectivity.
BK: I get what you are saying in terms of the underlying form of weaving. It actually was a very experimental medium, and even in my day there was no hallowed ground. Materials were used experimentally, which generated a new way of looking at space for me.
ARH: I wanted to ask you about how you see the relationship between your textile work and your work in other mediums. I wonder if you could in some way isolate how these labor and time based impulses inform your other gestures. In your catalogue interview with Liz Deschenes, you describe the building of a toolkit, which is so interesting to me as I use a similar description within my own practice and working method. For you, what did those textile investigations contribute to that toolkit?
BK: My interest was in the materiality and its effect on the form–the dependence on weight and drape. I liked pushing it to take its form as it interacted with space and gravity. For me, searching for integral qualities of the material is the basis of almost everything I do. As I develop the structure, I search for a phenomenological expression of materiality. My choice of materials also references other professional uses, such as the window screening for the cyanotype photograms, Photogenic Painting, or metal fasteners I used in the Construct series. The interdisciplinarity of my practice began with my experimentation with textiles.
I think your installations have a very personal, hands-on execution. For example, you make your own pegboard, giving it a handmade rough beauty, which I find interesting. We’re both using materials that might not be considered the right materials with which to make beautiful objects. It’s not silver; it’s not gold. We’re taking materials that don’t have these qualities and we’re making them beautiful.
When I was looking at your book [Amanda Ross-Ho: TEENY TINY WOMAN], I started thinking of your work as analytical poetry. Your use of cultural sources, carefully juxtaposed and embedded in an installation, highlights your rigorous process.
ARH: First of all, thank you, because it’s so meaningful that you arrived at that idea of analytical poetry. Funny enough, in writing about my own work, one of the descriptive terms that I regularly revisit has to do with this idea of the negotiation between poetics and analysis. I’ve used that several times, so it’s really meaningful that it resonated with you.
BK: I have many more years of work behind me, so I can look back now and see continuity and relationships—of course, as the work grows and changes, sometimes you’re too close to see it and you need to step back. We both just recently had surveys that allowed us to do that. I’m sure that you have thoughts about seeing all of your work and collected in that wonderful book. What was your reaction to seeing the expanse of your work and the connections there?
installation view of Amanda Ross-Ho: Teeny tiny Woman, June 23, 2012 – October 7, 2012 at MOCA pacific design center, courtesy the museum of contemporary art, Los angeles
ARH: For me, making a survey exhibition was extra meaningful because it gave me the opportunity to explicitly make the idea of “the survey” the subject of the work. Of course, I couldn’t ignore the fact that already present in my thinking was this idea of a retroactive gaze, of looking backwards and using that as a device or as a method. That was already happening so much in the work not only in terms of my own autobiography but also, as we were discussing earlier, mining various other histories that weren’t my own.
Actually, everything in my survey show was new work, but it was new work that incorporated the history of my own production in its making. Everything directly referenced specific pieces you had seen in the past. It was a bit of a tricky proposition, but that alone became so incredibly generative, which I think is what you were saying a moment ago about taking the long view. I realized all of a sudden that all of those ideas that had maybe remained a little bit more intuitive up to that point had a lot of intentionality behind them. The idea of looking forward and backward—that consideration of the totality of it all—was especially something that had been written in my methodology for quite awhile. Also, if you were following my work and interpreting certain aspects as a little bit arbitrary or random, that exhibition and catalog allowed you to realize just how pointed those things actually were. That was actually very exciting for me and hopefully for a viewer, to see where intentionality meets intuition–or something like that.
BK: Seeing a survey of my work was very interesting and actually has inspired me to continue working in the open-ended directions of my past work. Periodic resolve comes in the process as I look for an ending, but there are always more interesting avenues to explore. I just keep going from one process to another, which then inspires something else and keeps on moving forward. At least that’s what I do, the process evolves from hands-on experience, from making objects, from one idea to another.
Barbara Kasten: Stages, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.
ARH: I think that is very useful as an artist, to step out of yourself and be the observer of your own work. It’s a real treat, in a way. I also think a lot about the idea of switching roles in the studio, between being the maker and being the observer. The work comes out of the negotiation between those two points of view. Also, I think it sets a whole other set of wheels in motion. As you said, it can inspire you to keep working in new directions. It’s so interesting.
The idea of being an observer of your own practice is analytical but, for me, not entirely dispassionate. Does emotion come into play in your work?
BK: I can’t say it’s a goal to evoke an emotion in the work but if it does happen that my feelings are projected within the piece, hopefully it can be a similar experience for the viewer. My mood swings; if it’s going well I feel great, or really frustrated if not. The process ends with a work that is loaded with emotion that may not be obvious. I’m not sure if it’s possible to separate it from the presentation, or if I want to.
In the newest work, I am using intense color and transparency which creates a buoyancy and a liveliness that’s not the same as the work from the previous series [Studio Constructs]. The palette for that series was minimal and monochromatic. That’s not bad in any way, but they were more pensive. I think the choices of materials, light, and compositional devices not only reveal one’s intentions for the work but also provide emotional connections to a viewer. I keep work on the studio wall to look at on a daily basis, so I can discover things that I might not have noticed in one glance. It allows me to read it in different ways. Work grows on me, as I live with it.
ARH: For me, the work takes its structure from life structures so that means–of course–that emotion, being part of that whole holistic system, is wound into it. I think the way that it actually manifests in the work is probably twofold. There’s a part that relates to what you’re describing, which is: what is the mood, or what are the emotional conditions when the work is being made? There are days when your emotional mainframe is guiding the actual making and certainly impulses will come through. But primarily the way it manifests for me is in theatrical modes. In other words: for me, what’s interesting is creating hyperbolic, theatrical versions of some of those ideas. Then they’re contained, but it’s the result of an analysis that is wound into those emotions, meaning it’s not arbitrary. For me, I wouldn’t dare suggest that those things don’t exist but I think that they’re used as tools in a little bit of a different way, in terms of my practice.
BK: Everything I do seems to be theatrically staged, so your observations ring true for me. There is a difference between our presentations. I move around in my sets but the photographs that result don’t allow the viewer to be physically involved. Especially in the video installations, I want the viewer to relate in a bodily way to the three-dimensional set, but not necessarily be in it.
ARH: I think that performance, theatricality, and staging are ideas that I want to touch on with you at some point because they’re so important to me, and obviously so important to your practice. The idea of theater—maybe if, or when, we have another conversation, we can talk about that. Maybe in a second chapter or a second time around.
This dialogue was organized by Marco Kane Braunschweiler and edited by Stacey Allan. Special thanks to Aria Dean.