Blue Hallway is a very large, digital chromogenic print consisting of two abutting panels mounted on plexiglas. It depicts a room, apparently flooded with water. A stream of bright light from the right illuminates a narrow strip on the surface of the water and shines onto the side of an open doorway, highlighting the white paint on the door jamb, the decorative window next to it and a section of wooden panelling. Reflected in the water, the light creates a column of white in the centre of the image which stands out from surrounding shadows. The decorative semi-circular opening above the doorway is ornamented with a sunburst pattern composed of radiating spokes. To the right, in the corner of the room, a closed door is partially lit. At right angles to it, another large doorway presents black openings cut up into rectangles by jambs, lintels and leaded lights. The hallway walls are pale blue, casting a bluish hue over the image.
The room in this photograph is a table-top model built and photographed by the artist in his studio. It is the result of a commission by the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, which invited Casebere to create an exhibition based on the architecture of the two hundred-year old academy. Casebere selected two spaces in classroom buildings on which to base his models, a pink hall with a vaulted ceiling and crown molding and the blue hall with the semi-circular window over the door. He produced two images from the pink model, Pink Hallway #2, and #3, and one image, Blue Hallway, from the blue. The effect of flooding water was created with a special type of poured resin known as ‘E-2 Water’, which Casebere has been using since 1998 when he began creating flooded spaces. He has explained:
The first image where I did use water was ... based on photographs of flooded bunkers under the Reichstag. The water as a metaphor is about the passage of time. It’s about temporality. But it’s also about emotion, an excess of emotion ... about some sense of fullness. Maybe it’s a fear of drowning. It’s also a sense of overflow – good or bad – but movement.
(Quoted in Roberto Juarez, ‘James Casebere’, Bomb, no.177, Fall 2001, pp.28-35, p.32.)
Casebere grew up in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father a progressive high school principal whose experiments in educational improvement include designing open-plan high schools. As a teenager, Casebere went over blue-prints for these with his father, watched the building process and dreamt of becoming an architect. He began making and photographing constructions during his BA in fine art at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (graduated 1976). Studying for an MFA at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia (graduated 1979), Casebere was influenced by Conceptual artists Dennis Oppenheim (born 1938), Vito Acconci (born 1940) and Robert Morris (born 1931), who had initially worked with performance but were moving into sculpture with an architectural orientation. He has said: ‘when I started building models to photograph ... I was looking for a combination of humour and horror, a synthesis of the mundane and not so mundane, and a connection between social and personal history ... photography tied into history, myth and social identity – history being reconstructed time and again, and twisted to meet the needs of those writing it.’ (Quoted in Flash Art, p.84.) His early projects addressed American identity and archetypes analysed through period architecture. He photographed models of the American Wild West, 1950s suburbia and 1870s Shingle-style and Old Colonial style homes in black and white. More recently, Casebere has made colour photographs based on such structures as American prisons, tunnels under Berlin, a plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis and ‘Monticello’, the famous home of the third American president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). The images are dominated by an atmosphere of unsettling emptiness which the artist relates to the work of the painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967). He has explained: ‘There is a solitude and loneliness in Hopper that seems intrinsically American. It has to do with the openness and a sense of space ... I want to make the viewer the actor, inside the frame.’ (Quoted in Flash Art, p.84.) His recent photographs are enlarged to larger than life-sized proportions. Casebere has related his model rooms to a performance because they are temporary constructions and end in a photograph. Like the work of his contemporaries Cindy Sherman (born 1954) and Jeff Wall (born 1946), Casebere’s photographs operate in the area between theatre and the real. An initially apparently authentic space, on closer observation turns out to be a miniature version of a stage set. The image depicted is fictional, but it is derived from something which has existed in the world. In this way, Casebere combines the processes of theatrical set construction and the photographic film still with the representational tradition of painting.
Blue Hallway was produced in an edition of three, of which this is the third.
Jeff Rian, ‘James Casebere: The Architecture of Memory’, Flash Art, November-December 1998, pp.82-5
James Casebere: Asylum, exhibition catalogue, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Xunta de Galicia and Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1999
James Casebere: The Spatial Uncanny, Milan 2001, reproduced p.157 in colour