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.