James Casebere by Roberto Juarez

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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 ’50s, 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.