Exhibition Essay for The Full Catastrophe

Exhibition essay by Colin Smith (PDF & Images)

“Awkward Crossword” // the galaxy at large // To be loved in the 8th grade // Later when the bell rings. / The interest is generated // meek in its t-shirts. But clean / The separation is permanent. // poor folk, possessed of shadow doubles …

— Kevin Davies, Pause Button, 1992

Karen Asher’s second solo exhibition, The Full Catastrophe, was up for five weeks at aceartinc., radiating its complicated implications into the gallery air. Twenty-seven white-bordered, white-framed C-Print photographs, all some manner of portrait, all taken between 2014 and 2016, all 25” × 25”—a formal tidiness evoked. But to stand before them in contemplation was to reckon with images that seemed like bourgeois portraiture fused with funhouse mirror. What emerged?

Feeling conflicted. Happily and disturbingly so.

What is “the full catastrophe” anyway? Asher notes first coming across this plangent phrase in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s 1990 book Full Catastrophe Living, which cites its use in the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. Basically, it means everything of import that can happen to a person.

What is Karen Asher up to here? Well, observing the human body at home, mostly. Of this show’s twenty-seven images (most in sequences), all but three are set indoors. Twelve of them are set in the arena of bed. A deep interiority and intimacy is happening. A lot of vulnerable reclining—beyond the bedded subjects, there are others in bathtubs and on couches. There’s a fair bit of casually presented nudity and a good deal of underwear. There’s a lot of hugging and holding going on. Some of which is hilariously ungainly—the men in Purple Martin (2014) and Tight Grip (2014) almost essay the hug as Heimlich maneuvre. Other photos present the hug as amorphous animal: difficult to figure out how many bodies are engaged, because they fuse into one another—the people in Wallpaper (2016) and Arms (2015) demonstrate this. Faces are often turned away from the camera, are covered by hair, have closed eyes, or are scrupulously neutral in expression (if not literally masked). It’s a combination of intimate display with indifferent affect that can unsettle. What are these people thinking, what are they feeling? Are they asleep? Are they ill? An existential unease abounds.

Not monotonously so, though. As the body is at home in possible distress, it’s at play as well. Subjects are caught in laughter as they fall backward out of bed. Some seem in happy repose. Some are simply getting things done—toting a blanket on one’s head; helping dye a friend’s hair.

The bodies of Asher’s subjects are, by the whimsical tyrannies of commercial fashion, “non-standard”. Of numerous sizes and with non-conformist hair. A face bears a port-wine birthmark or pimple bouquets. A viewer had best get over it. All bodies are normal.

While I’m carping about fashion, I’ll add that the class of these bodies might well be “non-affluent”. We see rips in some shirts, a black sweater enhanced with white hair (feline? canine? human? all?), an overall schlumpy style in duds that hollers “thrift store” to me. In conjunction with their possessions, which seem second-hand, simple, or makeshift, big money is not implied here. Viewers are hereby encouraged to burn their lifestyle magazines. Poor folks have a right to exist.

Let’s consider sex.

The ambiguous Balling (2014) contains two figures who might be men. We see the back of one’s head; the other is hair attached to an obscured face. The topward, clothed body is comically and awkwardly humped over the bottom one. A hand floats phantasmally. The composition begs and frustrates the question: What exactly is going on here?

Dog Days (2016) is more explicit, though no more explanatory. Here are two facedown, ambiguous-looking persons (they might be women). Only the forward-most face can be seen. They appear to be having rear-entry sex while sprawled on an enormous plush toy of a dog. Good grief, a livid joke!

Simulated or not, sex in photos can provoke extreme conflict for a viewer. One can get erotically aroused or suffer a baneful embarrassment running along the lines of O my god, is this what I look like when I’m doing it? Worse, one can suffer both reactions.

How comfortable are we with our animality?

It’s important to know that Asher shoots on film, rather than digitally. This softens and thickens the lines and colours of objects and bodies in the photos while underscoring the harshness of their scenarios. A vice of aesthetic tension thereby tightened.

Celluloid is more skin-like.

Is Asher’s work camp? Somewhat. Maybe not toting a platinum membership card, but making a frequent nuisance of itself inside camp’s tent flap. (Her sincerity runs interference.)

There is consistent kitsch. Banal floral patterns in many shots; a ludicrously large piggy bank; an Opus T. Penguin plush toy. Most fabulously, the abovebed ornaments we see in both Wolfman (2014) and Blue Boy (2014). On the right is an elegant crucifix; to its left, a tacky clockstyle lamp featuring the Hindu deity Ganesha. The contrast is alarming and irreverent.

Asher’s gnomic names for her photos abet camp affect. Often they’re simply object and body-part names. This raises both a sexual and commodity fetishism that can remind us how owned we may be by our culture and our bodies.

There’s fair affinity between Karen Asher’s work and that of the late Diane Arbus. Both engage in the noble task of normalizing or de-demonizing the “freakish.” Both use surrealistic strategies in their mise en scènes. Both have a bit of a thing about twins and mimicry.


They’re not identical, though. Beyond the obviousness of Arbus’s rigorous adherence to shooting in black and white and Asher’s devotion to working in colour, they have tonal differences. Arbus is harsher, more aggressive, confrontational. Asher, while thoroughly bent and weird, is more playful, more humane.

I find it hard to imagine Arbus letting loose with a portrait as gleefully triumphant as Asher’s Queen (2015).

Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.

—Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1981

Maybe the most emblematic image of this exhibition is Crying Baby (2014). Another bed scene. A blond(e), blue-eyed toddler (gender indeterminate; though possibly naked) is getting a massive holler-on while perched partly on top of a supine male adult. This implied parent is clothed, and seems to be tenderly bracing the child with his right hand. His one visible eye is barely open and has a dopey mien about it, as though he’s been caught in a flicker of consciousness before going under again. Clamped over his nose is a breathing mask, the type used to aid people with sleep apnea. Of course he also looks like he could be dying.

A very moving cognitive dissonance here. One is pinned between laughter and tears, being creeped out or feeling vitalized (or maybe both).

Here is The Full Catastrophe in a pulverized, metaphorical nugget. The baseline condition of existence as a checked kind of mortification or embarrassment (we are not in control of our lives—political economy is—eventually we lose everything). What’s worse, lifelong pain or Robed Death putting its filthy mitts across your face?


All photos are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

—Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977


Colin Smith