In this digital age, photography can seem so casual. But Karen Asher is well aware of the power she invokes. Her recent photographs mine the depths of body language and explore gestures that are unguarded, elemental and way beyond contrivance.
Crying Baby depicts a howling infant on the chest of a bedridden man. The whole scene is uncomfortable. A sleep apnea apparatus transforms the man into a masked, unfamiliar android. The naked child cries out for rescue. The implication is this: there is no warmth, no comfort, no relief. Instead, there’s painfully humorous absurdity.
Asher, a Winnipeg artist, is represented by Lisa Kehler Art and Projects, but is showing this spring at Ace Art Inc. The Full Catastrophe, Asher’s third solo show, takes its name from a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American specialist in stress reduction and mindfulness. In the book, Kabat-Zinn describes a scene from Zorba The Greek. When asked if he has been married, Zorba replies: “Of course, I have been married. Wife, house, kids, everything … the full catastrophe.” Asher’s photographs certainly embody that anecdote. Life, even average life, is a whirlwind. “We all go through the same types of stresses,” Asher says in her artist statement, “which become strongly magnified as we let them take up more space in our perspectives.”
While Asher’s photographs are personal, not all are as direct as Crying Baby. The new work was fuelled by her struggle with chronic illness. And, indeed, there are many signifiers of malaise here; beds, blankets and ubiquitous grey-beige walls. But Asher is a deft image-maker, and her photos frequently reach past personal crisis to deal with the body as sculpture. Many of her best photos are about what happens when bodies come together and stumble apart. Several depict pairings, doubles, and even literal twins.
Arms shows three semi-nude figures, and contains a strange benevolence. There’s ease between the figures, a pleasing repetition of form and shiny nylon skin. Wolfman also contains repeating forms. Conveying a peculiar intimacy, the photo cannily links the mythical, hairy creature with Christ and the Hindu god Ganesh.
Several images capture moments that read like bizarre fantasies, yet they also feel transparently ordinary. Occasionally, Asher photographs strangers, but there are several friends and family members here. She has learned to be patient, waiting for spontaneous and sometimes reckless moments.
We are only who we are when no one is looking. Well, no one and Asher, whose own natural candidness draws out what is most brutally, hilariously and painfully honest about her subjects.
– Sarah Swan