I didn't plan on seeing this show. Sometimes you go looking for one thing and you find another. What’s that saying? When one door closes, another door opens. Cringe at this hackneyed utterance, but it just so happens to be the perfect analogy for Steve Kahn’s sleek solo show at Casemore Kirkeby, Mural Triptychs & Door/Window Constructions -- and not just because his subject matter includes doors.
In 1970s Hollywood, Kahn made a bit of extra money by shooting photographs for a bondage magazine in run-down rent-by-the-day one-room apartments. That commercial work parlayed into photographs of a more artistic sort, and one day, when a hired model didn’t show up, Kahn photographed the empty room itself. (When one door closes...)
“The container became more interesting than the content it contained,” he says of the series, which he calls The Hollywood Suites. These works, on view at Casemore Kirkeby for the first time in 35 years, are remarkably contemporary, in part because Kahn's prints, with their luscious blacks and analog graininess, look fantastic (dare I say, sexy?), and in part because the psychological space of interiors is infinitely, timelessly rich. (Local practitioners Amy M. Ho and Cybele Lyle consistently mine that field to excellent results.)
Kahn’s vintage prints of doors, windows, corners, hallways and missing mirrors are devoid of almost any signs of life. The geometric edges of these dark-carpeted, dingy-walled spaces become segmented and scrambled as Kahn arranges Polaroids and gelatin silver prints in orientations that may or may not resemble the actual rooms he photographed.
The effect is claustrophobic and disconcerting. Did terrible things happen at the site of these high-contrast images? Or, to a lesser degree, do the Hollywood suites capture feelings of isolation and desperation? In Quadrant #1 (below), four Polaroids in a grid create a fictitious view into a carpeted, four-walled and totally enclosed space. It’s a room with no entry and no exit; the possibility of another door opening isn’t even an option here. Similarly, Triptych #10 shows a wall that appears real enough, but something about the scale is strange -- the angles of the corners seem improbable.
By rephotographing his Polaroids with 35mm film, and in turn, rephotographing those gelatin silver prints with a large-format camera, Kahn created "generations" of his own images, scaling up output at each turn. And yet, each iteration retains some of the initial immediacy of the Polaroid. Kahn replaces the white edges of his Polaroids with thin strips of mat board or slight spaces between his aluminum-mounted prints.
The "mural triptychs" of the exhibition's dryly factual title are the largest works in the show, smooth gelatin silver prints laid out three wide or stacked three wide. Kahn's own experiments with presentation clearly flow from these triptychs to the Door/Window Constructions. Abandoning even the formality of same-sized panels, these uneven triptychs evoke that other saying about closed doors and open windows, a variation on a theme. Some of Kahn's windows don't give you the views you might hope for, trapped as you are amidst his "no-exit" spaces. In Door/Window #3, Kahn flanks a fictional double door with smoggy 1978 views of downtown Los Angeles.
It’s tucked into the back room of Casemore Kirkeby where you finally accept you're forever indoors in Kahn's images, but where you also realize you might not care. The real treats line up against the back room gallery's gray walls: small gelatin silver prints of windows with ill-fitting curtains, the places where shaped mirrors used to hang, and Kahn’s “bound doors.” Part Harry Smith string figures and part ridiculous bondage exercise, these images (and Kahn’s strategically scratched polaroids in Acting Out) show the man behind the camera interested in not just the formal qualities of his work, but in the process and the play involved in making it.
Shut your own door behind you and step through the doors at 1275 Minnesota St. for an analogy-affirming art viewing experience.
Mural Triptychs & Door/Window Constructions is on view at Casemore Kirkeby in San Francisco through Sept. 10. For more information, visit casemorekirkeby.com.