“FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING” By Peter Frank
Peter Frank is Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine and art critic for Huffington Post. He has served as critic for the LA Weekly, Village Voice, and SoHo Weekly News, as Editor of THEmagazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and as Senior Curator at the Riverside (California) Art Museum.
At a time in human history when our inter-connectivity, our ability to communicate with (or at least to) one another, has reached both globe-girdling and sub-atomically intimate levels, we can feel almost as if we are privy to one another’s most guarded secrets, regardless who one another may be. We seem to “know” the new guy in the news, the face on Facebook, the tweeter from the tweet, and the only thing left separating us is language. Such a sense of inter-omniscience is balanced – well, countermanded – by its flip side, the suspicion that our fellow homo sapiens are in fact impossibly opaque, and that what we actually are accessing is not their personalities but their personas, characters constructed, carefully or casually, doing their best to engage us in an ongoing psychological cosplay. We never feel truly alone, and we never feel truly acquainted.
Sherry Karver’s work speaks directly to, and plays with, this uniquely post-post-modern alienation, an alienation born of just the right amount of too much information. It sets us adrift among our peers, imagining for us who they are, who they are trying to be, and why they happen to be where they are at that moment, dressed as they are, poised as they are, acting as they are. Sometimes (notably in the Plexiglass and light box editions) the faces in the crowd project no voice and break up in a stream of pixels, their presence in our visual space as fleeting as a dream and as detail-poor as a cellphone capture, their image yet naggingly persistent. Other times, the slump or stride of a body proposes an entire short story, generating a fractured disquisition Karver identifies, describes, and provides with the coherence of a novelist “discovering” a character or a director filling out an establishing shot.
Karver’s media are photography and painting, but her method is literary – never more so than when she interjects figures from the past into the present, highlighting this trope of memory with filmic gloss in order to allow us more familiar, comfortable transition. Our ready access to the past, after all, is as peculiar to our time as is our access to one another. We are habituated to the cinematic literalization of our imagination, to watching time and space conflate, times and spaces fuse before our very eyes. Karver exploits this (originally) modernist sense of the cumulative present – and especially our unwitting dependence on it – and in her work finds the point at which social media (an oddly neo-modernist phenomenon) set us adrift in our own movies.
To be sure, the inner monologues Karver projects on various figures in her crowd scenes are her presumptions; they only stand in for ours. Her revelation of their human foible can be sweet, silly, endearing, pitiable, disappointing, maddening, and so forth, bringing a figure to as much life as a primary role in its own drama or as little as a walk-on supernumerary who gets to grimace meaningfully in the background. By “opening up” certain of the people who walk across her stage (the choice of which people taking on a strange profundity), Karver doesn’t so much give body to their bodies as give license to her own – and by extension our – fantasies about being human. Everyone she notates – and by inference everyone she sees – is involved at once in the choreography of the moment, the theater of their lives, the poetry of her prose, and the ritual of our curiosity.
Taking the détournement of the Situationists a step further, finding empathy in it where anxious hostility once reigned, Sherry Karver proposes relief, however temporary, for our own disengagement. Even as a babble of falsity and distraction crowds our minds, screens, and airwaves, Karver reassures us that, whether or not our fellow humans are acting and thinking as human as we need them to, we can presume or even pretend they are. We can’t dress them, but we can redress them. At worst, it’s entertainment; at best, it’s life.
Los Angeles, March 2013
‘Figuratively Speaking’ by Janet Alexander
Fittingly enough, New York is the subject of Figuratively Speaking, a new exhibition from Chicago-born, California-based visual artist Sherry Karver, which debuted May 3 at the Kim Foster Gallery located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Karver showcases her two favorite shoot locations, Grand Central Terminal and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of which she describes as, “the perfect intersection where lives meet and cross through time.”
Conceptually blurring time directly results from how Karver’s artistic method blurs the distinction between painting and photography. As composites, consisting of digital photography, narrative text and resin surfacing, Karver’s images may be understood within the so-called, “post-medium condition” of contemporary artistic production asserted by American art critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss in A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (1999). Expanding and shifting the parameters of their traditional forms, Karver blends painting and photography, interrelating the two into a new hybrid that results in one of a kind depictions, not photo editions. The crowd in attendance at the show’s opening was a mixed group of Chelsea art scene veterans, those familiar with Karver’s name and personal acquaintances of Kim Foster, as well as a noticeably younger set who are emerging artists, or at least, those newly breaking into familiarizing themselves with Chelsea’s open gallery viewing days.
Karver has always been inclined toward art, taking classes throughout college, and realized ceramic pottery and sculpture as her life’s calling just as she was graduating from the University of Indiana, after majoring in sociology. She spent four years delving into her newfound passion, opening a ceramics shop in Chicago, before earning a MFA in 2D figurative ceramic sculptures. All the while, Karver was photographing her clay works, and eventually found herself transitioning exclusively into painting. In 1995, she received a computer and Photoshop software as a birthday gift from her husband. “Eh, when am I ever going to use this,” Karver had wondered silently at the time of having received the gift. Original iterations of her current work were first based on found photographs, and in particular, a beloved magazine ad that Karver repeatedly scanned until it was literally in tatters. Once again, Karver’s husband was there to augment her art, and recognized that the advertisement image was of Grand Central Terminal and encouraged her to just go there herself to photograph it. A subsequent flight to New York in 1996 marks the launch of Karver’s contemporary artistry as it is known today.
Ever since switching from analog to digital photography six years ago, Karver’s work has become more creatively flexible than ever before. However, although Karver’s work is composed through a thoughtfully multi-layered process, she shies away from claiming any technical prowess. “I tend to use the same tools, and don’t learn beyond what I need,” she says. She takes full advantage of the technological conveniences and advancements, shooting an estimated 1,000 digital color photographs with a Canon DSLR, the model of which Karver admits she can’t remember, during each of her trips, and uses Photoshop to piece together her compositions, putting in “partial people,” meaning, the head from one person onto the body of another, and sometimes adding a hat, bag or other accessories. “There is a lot of manipulation,” Karver summarizes. After changing the photographs to black and white, if it “still works,” then Karver prints the piece out from an Epson 9600 printer, adheres it on top of two 5/8’’ wood panels, and then proceeds to hand paint the large-scale image — laying it flat on a tabletop, since it is too large to mount on an easel — with numerous coats of oil glazes. Karver never refers back to the original pictures, to avoid any risk of influencing her coloration.
It was not until 2000 that Karver began writing text over some of her figures, “in an attempt to personalize or individualize them, and make them stand out from the crowd,” she says. The idea of adding stories came to Karver after printing a photograph from a newspaper she’d scanned and seeing the words from the reverse side come through in the photo. Writing about certain individuals on top of the figures themselves seemed the most logical to Karver, “it adds another layer, and gives the viewer a chance to “experience” the artwork, and become part of the process by reading it,” she explains. Giving a voice to her subjects through which viewers can more intimately relate, the superimposed descriptions are entirely fictitious, and often humorous in their candidly true-to-life insights.
Figuratively Speaking is Karver’s third solo show at the Kim Foster Gallery, since the gallery opened its doors in 1992. Foster was introduced to Karver’s work through Lew Allen of LewAllen Contemporary, and most appreciates how the text enhances Karver’s work, simply because, “it’s funny and makes people happy,” she says. Amidst the general majority of contemporary fine art, Karver’s approach is exceptionally inclusive, engaging even the least artistically literate viewers. The writing is both a valuable creative outlet and a powerful medium of intellectual exchange, of which Karver says, “People can relate to the work without having to know art.” Figuratively Speaking is an apt title, characterizing the form and function of an art intending to be a multi-sensory experience. Its large-scale is both practical in making sure the text is legible, while also serving to reinforce how we may be affected by its metaphysical themes.
The final surface of the works is covered in a UV resin that is deliberately left in a glossy finish so that viewers can see their own reflection. Paradoxically, it is the most apparent yet overlooked aspect of Karver’s levels of engagement. Literally being able to see ourselves in the images affords an uncommon interaction, “as each of us becomes complicit, as both a protagonist and voyeur,” in the words of Karver’s artist statement. Connecting to ourselves through familiar scenarios of strangers fosters an emotional relatedness to these moments in time. “I just people watch, see an interesting person, and I’ll take a picture of them,” Karver says, referring to them collectively as, “a vocabulary.” Karver’s resulting visual language, as it were, is multiform.
While the images featured in Figuratively Speaking were photographed within the last two years, over the past decade, Karver has accumulated a massive stockpile of photographs of people that she calls, “the individuals,” from which she often pulls selections to replace, or integrate with the original image’s subjects. In the case of her most recent series, Parisians photographed at a train station and mid-20th century figures intermingle with contemporary metropolitan travelers, resulting in a vivid tableau of timelessness. Serbian sisters Tatjana and Nataja, who are in New York to study architecture, were impressed by Karver’s vintage figures, “I feel like I’m people-watching looking at it now,” Tatjana says, with Nataja adding, “some people you don’t notice, like the ones who appear to be vanishing, and others you do.” The implicit transience intrinsic to the scene is also a key point of inquiry explored, as Karver describes, “My work embraces the contemporary non-linear view of time with its randomness, spontaneity, and chance occurrences. The figures are often caught in movement, conveying our individual journeys, where we are all ‘collectively alone.’” Emil, a New York based writer in attendance at the exhibition’s opening, was enamored, “l think this is one of the most fascinating exhibits I’ve come across — to merge art with humanity directly, by highlighting day to day scenes is a wonderful concept.”
As long-forgotten as it may be for Karver, her sociology degree proves to bear a significant influence on how the central focus of her work is people — both those captured in her images and viewers. The multimedia works communicate holistically as much as they do through their respective constituent components. The resulting collection presents a dialectic concerning how identity and personal narrative coexist in relation to society at large, with the familiarity of the crowded public setting, or as Karver describes it, “the sea of sameness,” which poses the most immediate opportunity for reception. Having known Karver since she started showing at the Kim Foster Gallery, photographic collage artist Buzz McCall has witnessed Karver’s art form evolve over time, and takes particular note of the ghostly figures, “they’re subtly engaged, passing through, but not directly intermingling.” Ultimately, her work is driven by a deeply profound desire to cultivate relationships through portraying scenes strikingly devoid of any.
Galo Magazine, May 2013