by Elwyn Palmerton
In the mid-1970s Steve Kahn (1943-1980) briefly worked as a photographer for a BDSM, a bondage/kink magazine. This single freelance gig, which lasted for only one issue, would end up influencing his work for years to come. Initially, he met with models in seedy Hollywood motel rooms for photo shoots. He found the situation fascinating and soon asked the women to pose for his own work. This became a series called Hollywood Suites Nudes. Eventually, he took up photographing the rooms without the models, and these environs subsequently became a principle subject. Casemore Kirkeby’s retrospective exhibition of Kahn’s work, Stasis, Corridors (1969-1980), documents this transformation with samples from seven bodies of work, including photographs made before and after this fateful day job.
Four images from the Hollywood Suites Nudes are included here. Although traces of their louche origins remain, they speak the language of 1970s Conceptualism more fluently than that of pornography. Hollywood Suites Nudes #32 (1974-75), for example, shows a woman curled into a ball on the floor, face-down. A single black strap wraps around her body forming an equator between the black triangle of her panties and the cascade of dark hair obscuring her face. Each of these details are emphasized as shapes. There is something psychological here, but it seems related to the formal aspects of the photo: her yoga-like repose echoes the clarity of the composition.
In Hollywood Suites Window 11 (1976), we see several low-lying buildings outside the motel room. These are framed by a dilapidated wooden window frame, a cracked window pane, and a wild paisley wallpaper pattern. Inside and outside are presented as part of the same tableau, as coextensive spaces. The individual elements dissolve into grainy atmospherics, gritty and quintessentially LA in their representation of air as a kind of volume and light as a quality that subsumes materiality.
Later, Kahn turned the camera on himself. Running (1976/2013) appears to depict a continuous hallway in three separate photographs juxtaposed horizontally. The inconsistent size of the figure, which reappears in each frame, contradicts this illusion by exaggerating it. He appears to shrink faster than the hallway itself. These works are products of collage and yet – due to their implied continuity – the eye patches these images together and projects the indexicality of the photograph onto it. Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, Kahn seems to shrink as he travels down the hallway, looking as if he might not reach the end. The mind-bending quality of the photo has less to do with the images presented than with what unfolds in the imagination.
After this, he investigated architectural space in large-format photos. Door/Window #6 (1987-2017) is, essentially, collage — a photograph of photographs showing a door mounted between two mismatched windows, their spatial relationships askew. These elements typically serve some function, but here they are reduced to mere objects and images, obdurate and ultimately opaque. They project into our physical space, but don’t invite us into theirs.
This sense of psychologically loaded space continues with Corridors (1980). Each of the seven images from this series is identically composed and shot from the same single-point perspective. A cloudy darkness at the end of the hallways appears to push forward as if the perspectival illusion were about to collapse. The seemingly insigificant differences between these otherwise interchangeable spaces – the bare bulbs, the cheap lighting fixtures, the worn carpets and the fire extinguishers — gain a certain punctum-like quality by virtue of having accentuated the overwhelming sameness of each corridor. Like fetish objects, their aura, magnified by repetition, supersedes their actual significance.
The single-point perspective and horror movie-vibe unavoidably recalls The Shining, but the setting suggests collective madness rather than the isolated insanity of Jack Torrance. These images underscore a general condition of architecture: its imbrication in political, economic, and cultural systems. Motels, generally, epitomize our collective alienation. As scenes of lonely transience, dereliction, and the occasional porno shoot, they privilege exchange value over other forms of social activity. As physical objects – that is, something distinct from photography — Kahn’s work intrudes into our reality, suggesting that the scenes depicted are really just extensions and expressions of the ideologically determined spaces in which we all live.
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Steve Kahn: “Stasis, Corridors, 1969-1980” @ Casemore Kirkeby through May 26, 2018.
About the Author:
Elwyn Palmerton is an Oakland-based artist dealing in obsessive and improvisational abstract paintings. A New Jersey native, he received a B.A. from New York University and an M.F.A. from The School of Visual Arts. Since graduating he has exhibited regularly in New York City and Oakland. His writing has appeared in Frieze, Art Ltd., Artillery, Sculpture and Art Review.