|For artist David Kastner, content is more important than technique. The Florida-based multimedia artist aims to move beyond the merely technical to get at an understanding of how the materials he engages with actually work, exploiting their properties to get at what he is most interested in: meaning, ideas, and concepts. Ultimately, Kastner says, “Throughout my life, the purpose of my work has always been to concentrate knowledge into forms, offering this concentrated knowledge to those who experience the work.” This is especially true of his newest body of work, which is on view in an exhibition entitled Distraction in August at Ico Gallery in Manhattan.|
For artist David Kastner, content is more important than technique. The Florida-based multimedia artist aims to move beyond the merely technical to get at an understanding of how the materials he engages with actually work, exploiting their properties to get at what he is most interested in: meaning, ideas, and concepts. Ultimately, Kastner says, “Throughout my life, the purpose of my work has always been to concentrate knowledge into forms, offering this concentrated knowledge to those who experience the work.” This is especially true of his newest body of work, which is on view in an exhibition entitled Distraction in August at Ico Gallery in Manhattan.
Closely linked to Conceptualists and Process Artists like Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys, Kastner follows Nauman’s edict that art should be “more of an activity and less of a product.” Like Nauman, Kastner has focused less on the development of a specific style than on the ways in which process or activity can transform materials and become a work of art. In the past few years, his practice has been concerned with a careful study of the language of light and color as well as with more transcendent and ephemeral issues, including life, mortality, and spirituality. Answering Allan Kaprow’s call to “blur the boundaries of art and life,” Kastner has also always been interested in the notion of spectator participation, while also heeding the warnings of critic, Claire Bishop, who has claimed that the aesthetic value of participatory works lies in their “productive contradiction of art’s relationship to social change, characterized… by [the] tension between faith in art’s autonomy and a belief in art as inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come.” Considering this fact, then, it is no surprise that Kastner considers the notorious German artist, Jospeph Beuys, an immense influence. Beuys is also the subject of Kastner’s August show at Ico Gallery, which is planned as a two-man show displaying the work of both artists.
A significant performance and conceptual artist of the 60s and 70s, Beuys was a controversial figure who imbued his work with personal autobiography, the content of which has often been contentious. Despite the truth or untruth of the life story he presented to his audiences, he was a formal genius who employed time, sound, and found objects as fodder for his sculptural installations, and as points of departure for his unconventional actions, which pioneered performance art and created remarkable events instilled with mythological, historical, and personal reverberations. Beuys’ most significant contribution—especially in light of Kastner’s work—was his belief that it is through audience participation in an artwork that the audience communes most fully with the expressive intent and consciousness of the artist. In fact, it is this reciprocal relationship that Kastner’s work most aims to engender. For without an active audience, art is dead. It is through the audience’s participation that art comes to life, and both the viewer’s and the artist’s patterns of consciousness are altered.
In Distraction, the curators at Ico Gallery pair Kastner and Beuys in a tour-de-force visual dialogue in which both artists’ approach to the intersections between art and life are paralleled. Several pieces stand out in Kastner’s work that is on view in the show. In one work, entitled Time, we see a round clock face with a circular wooden frame. It is like most clocks that one could find on an office wall or a home, yet something about it is off. The minute and hour hands, as well as the numbers of the clock, are all backwards, with the hands moving in reverse. The installation is completed by a small square mirror, replete with a painted wood frame, which hangs directly opposite the clock face so that the spectator may see it in its “correct” orientation. Reminiscent of the work of British artist, Darren Almond, who uses sculpture, film, and photography to explore the effects of time on the individual, Kastner’s message is unambiguous: only the participant-observer, gazing at the reflection in the mirror, can complete the piece: “real” time only exists in the reflected image, not in the actual object.
Several other works in a body of stenciled graphic art pieces draw to mind the work of contemporary graffiti artists such as Blek le Rat, Banksy, John Fekner, and Shepard Fairey. In July 16, 1945, a triangular composition (with the point of the triangle facing downward), we encounter a multihued composition with flecked and gridded paint in a variety of colors, including crimsons, ochers, and sky blues, over which a black stencil has been spray-painted, revealing the words “July 16, 1945,” the date of the first atomic weapon test in the United States. As Kastner reminds us: “J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and others all worked to control and manipulate the greatest power yet known to man, and we marvel at the ingenuity and brilliance of these thinkers who explored unknown territory of the human imagination, and controlled natural phenomena to an immense degree. We must also be aware that this fantastic potential brought with it untold human suffering and tragedy.” The chaos and gritty street energy of the work operates as a signifier of modern anarchy, transmitting an urban punk aesthetic of radical street protest.
Two similar, and very innovative works that seem to draw on the text-based art of conceptual artist, Lawrence Weiner, involve long rectangular compositions composed of actual puzzle pieces. The grounds of both are multicolored, and stenciled on them are evocative words. One reads “Attention” and another, “Distraction.” Like other conceptual artists, Kastner challenges traditional forms of display and assumptions about the nature of the art object. In this case the “object” is an idea, informed by all the connotations associated with the words he picks. Furthermore, these words can be literally “deconstructed” and “reconstructed” if a participant-observer chooses to take the puzzle apart, or put it back together. Again, the work doesn’t exist until it is confronted and made whole by the mind (and hands) of the viewer.
In fact, such work draws to mind the Neo-Concrete artworks of Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark, who criticized the “dangerous hypertrophy of rationalism,” advocating instead a subjective interaction between the viewer and the work. Like Clark, Kastner’s works epitomize Merleau-Ponty’s theories in the Phenomenology of Perception, which were rooted in the destabilization of the Cartesian gaze—its binary differentiation between the subject and the object, and its positioning of the “world” as exterior to the viewer—as well as its primacy of vision itself. Like Merleau-Ponty, Kastner favors a more corporeally rooted approach to perception, something akin to what Michael Taussig has termed “tactile knowing.”
Crucify and Buddha, two elegant minimalist digital prints are also on view. Appearing as minimalist grids on simple tonal fields (the former on a white background, the latter on a bronze background) the two pieces represent iconographic images that have been duplicated hundreds of thousands of times—so many, in fact, that they appear as lines on the page. In the case of Crucify, the 60-by-90-inch digital print is inundated with one-inch drawings in black ink of the image of a crucifixion. Buddha depicts an image of a bronze Buddha sculpture that has also been reproduced several thousand times. Both reference to Warhol’s Thirty are Better than One (in which he silkscreened the Mona Lisa multiple times on a canvas) as well as to Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Through such works Kastner again exemplifies Benjamin’s assertion that “all human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.”
Such works also draw to mind Gilles Deleuze’s claim in Difference and Repetition that repetition is not “a repetition of successive elements or external parts, but of totalities which coexist on different levels or degrees.” For Deleuze, then, it is the “secret and passive” repetitions—let’s call them spiritual repetitions—existing beneath superficial material repetition (which he calls “profound repetition of the internal totalities of an always variable past”) that are the most important elements when repetition is represented. Ultimately, in experiencing Kastner’s work, it is these underlying in-between spaces of a deeper meaning and more transcendental experience of “secret and passive repetition” that are alluded to through the surface repetitions, and which enable an encounter with what Deleuze terms “the body without organs.”
The last, and perhaps most elusive, yet compelling work that is on view in the show is entitled Folly of the Seventh Seal (the 100 Million Dollar Skull). Taking Damien Hirst’s Diamond Skull as its point of departure, the sculpture consists of a plastic and metal skull spray painted shades of gold, red, and blue, and mounted on a wooden stand. It is also intended as a reference to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—specifically the scene in which the knight plays chess with the Satan in a battle to the death—which is indicated by the wooden stand, shaped like a chess pawn. Yet, the reference to Hirst is most evident, and Kastner’s response is clear, “We need to be aware that value in art is not contained just in material value,” he reminds us. “What is the real value of art?”
For Kastner, the answer, it seems, is communication and dissemination of ideas. Marshall McLuhan put it best, “The medium is the message.” Yet, the message is incomplete without a recipient. Ultimately, for Kastner, who moves beyond the one-way expressions of the Conceptualists, it is the spectator who finishes the work. Yet, whether the language that is employed is verbal or visual, the transmission of the message that fills the gap between the subject and the other is always fraught with potentials for miscommunication. For, as Heinrich Boll writes in Missing Persons:
“The problem that torments us all—the young artists and writers who are being honored here no less than myself—is the problem of transforming objects into material and transforming this material back into a reality that does justice to both object and material. Every painter, sculptor, and composer is faced with the same problem, except that language is fraught with particularly ticklish objects, and their materialization, the double transformation that language must undergo, is burdened with conventional images, morality, politics, history, and religion, with misunderstood and misguided ideals lying in readiness on the palette of interpretation.”
As Kastner himself reminds us, “Artists present, represent, and present again.” Art making is a never-ending process of back and forth that involves a give and take between expression and interpretation. Kastner sums up his own work best when he writes, “The image, visual stimuli, and the acquisition of data from visual sources represent the profound nature of human sensory capability. Artists recognize this power of visual form, whether knowingly, or intuitively, and leave their impression for others to contemplate.” Pondering Kastner’s vast and complex body of work is an endeavor that this critic, for one, plans to engage in for a long time to come.