Where do I even start with Karen Asher?
I met her a decade ago but you’ve known her forever after 10 minutes of conversation. She’s a compulsive over-sharer and an irrepressible gossip, a misplaced scene queen in a classic, anachronistic vein, a Jewish girl from the Maples reared on late-night cable access and candy from the 24-hour Shoppers. She loves people but it’s a love entwined with curiosity: she’s not above causing a scene just to see how it plays out.
If I’m getting personal up front it’s because I think that’s what Karen would do, and because destabilizing candor, like a general air of calamity, is a hallmark of the work she makes. Asher is a character, and she’s one of the city’s most distinctive photographers and artists.
Shot on medium-format film in revealing but not altogether flattering light, her photographs capture moments of surreal, unintelligible intimacy. Staged but not pre-meditated, the scenes she directs and documents can be viscerally awkward, though the final compositions seem effortless. Behind the camera, Asher is uncannily perceptive, quick to react to developing situations. Her images are provocative, weird and essentially humane.
The Full Catastrophe (opened April 15 at Aceartinc.) is Asher’s first new body of work and first solo show in Winnipeg since 2010. Five years ago, just as her work was coming to national attention, overlapping and hard-to-pin-down health problems forced her from her practice as she learned to cope with unfamiliar limitations. The show has the hard-won urgency of a real comeback, with Asher exploring new subjects and artistic strategies, all while refining her focus and retaining her inimitable character.
The new work began in earnest two years ago, with illness serving starting point both personally and conceptually. Insightful, abstract, and absurd in equal measure, Catastrophe considers breakdowns of the body’s normal function as they’re felt across all aspects of life, finding parallels in blurred social boundaries and moments of visual ambiguity. The point is of finding in chaos, if not "meaning" or even the illusion of order, something worth celebrating or at least looking at again.
Though she’s never been "conventional," Asher has moved away from conventions of portraiture that informed her earlier work. In the new multi-figure compositions ("collisions" might be the better word), the identities of her subjects are often obscured and not necessarily relevant. It’s not even clear how many people are in the frame sometimes, making the images hard to describe and leading to more than one alarming double-take. Who these people are, what they’re doing together, and how they relate are questions left open by design.
Asher arranges her subjects like sculpture, architecture or rickety Rube Goldberg machines. Bodies collide, fuse and break apart. Partly undressed women fumble into one another like drunken caryatids, a tottering colonnade that rounds a corner into a sequence like a hazily pieced together memory of a makeout party on the couch, one which looks different on closer inspection. As we read, re-read, and misread each new situation, the tone shifts from amorous to awkward to aggressive to tender to inscrutable and back.
If unpredictability is a requirement when Asher is shooting, no decision after the shutter clicks goes unconsidered. The 27 prints were painstakingly selected from a larger group and carefully arranged in the gallery to both suggest and disrupt narrative sequence, direct the viewer’s movement through the space and highlight visual echoes and startling juxtapositions. This focus on installation is a new development, one that underscores Asher’s skill, sensitivity, and precise artistic vision.
After five years on the sidelines, Asher is at the height of her oddball powers and the top of her game. Saturday’s artist talk won’t be one to miss.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Thursday, April 21, 2016.