February 25, 2020

Sherry Karver and the Inner Life of Crowds

At first glance, Sherry Karver’s works look like large photographs of crowd scenes, slightly soft-focused, manipulated in some manner by the artist. But up close, you see the words — stream-of-consciousness ruminations superimposed neatly over the bodies of a few individuals.

These “biographies,” as Karver calls them, present a peek into the imagined thoughts of strangers, many of whom are busily obsessing about minor problems or perceived personal flaws, the kinds of “secrets” all of us wear out into the world, even as we dress for the day, trying to button them in.

Many of these musings are comical and, well, pretty mundane, despite the amount of energy and attention they can take. I certainly felt a jolt of embarrassing recognition seeing my own thoughts, or at least ones running along a similar, anxious vein, circling in the heads of others. It makes you stop and reconsider your own incessant inner monologue, what Michael Singer, author of the mindfulness classic “The Untethered Soul” describes as an “inner roommate,” that chatterbox who has taken up residency in your head, refusing to shut up, ruining “anything you’re doing without a moment’s notice.”

In one Karver piece, called “Inner Thoughts and Outer Actions,” currently on view at Sue Greenwood Fine Art in Laguna Beach, three figures stand on a balcony overlooking the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal. They face away from us, gazing down toward the information kiosk and the travelers below. The woman on the left wears a deep purple dress and heels that obviously hurt her feet; she’s crossed her left foot behind her right and is twisting it on its side. Her thoughts (printed in the girly-looking Lucida Handwriting font) turn to a man to her right:

“I’m trying to look sexy, but my shoulder is sore, and these heels are impossible to stand in … they’re going to give me varicose veins if I don’t sit down soon.  … I only dressed up like this because my psychic palm reader said I would meet Mr. Wonderful today if I wore this dress and heels. … I’m giving it another half hour, then going home, changing into my sweats, eating a pint of ice cream, and watching a reality TV show.”

Karver did not grow up in a story-telling family, and this work did not evolve from listening to stories around the table. Both her parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland, and they did not talk about their past, or even share with her their own experience, until she was in her 20s. The biographies in her paintings come from things friends or students say, from her own thoughts, and from the hopes and dreams expressed by contestants on shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”

“I watch a lot of reality TV,” she admits. “And I always say to my friends, ‘Anything you say might wind up in one of my pieces.’ ”

Sherry Karver in her studio. Photo courtesy of Sherry Karver.

Karver starts each painting by taking hundreds of photographs quickly in an iconic location — a transportation hub, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a sidewalk café in Paris. Then she downloads the photos onto a computer, picks one she likes and begins subtracting people, changing hairstyles, putting one person’s head on another’s body, even adding people shot in other locations or occasionally taken from archival black-and-white images. Sometimes, they’ll also be ghostly figures. The painting with the woman in purple, for example, has two ghost-like figures visible on the main floor, a suggestion of travelers’ past. “It’s about a time continuum, people who may have been there last week or last year, or people who may pass through five years from now,” Karver says.

“I had been making up these little bios for my paintings, and I thought, ‘I want to keep doing this.’ ”  — Sherry Karver

Once she has a final composition and has identified a few people in it whose stories she plans to tell, Karver prints the image in black and white, then adheres it to a wood panel. She paints in the clothes, hair and background with oil paint, and pours resin over the “colorized” image. She repeats this process two or three times, creating a layered, shimmery, built-up surface that makes faces in the crowd somewhat indistinguishable, even as their stories are so specific.

These works aren’t overtly Jewish, though the reference to our inner lives feels vaguely psychoanalytical, another kind of Jewish “art.” Karver, who has an MFA in ceramics and teaches ceramics at Laney College in Oakland, turned to these paintings after two decades of creating huge ceramic wall pieces based on the Holocaust and the kabbalah. One of these large-scale ceramics is permanently installed in the lobby of Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The word-photo-paintings started almost accidentally. Karver was playing around with Photoshop and with superimposing text on figures. Around the same time, she was slated to be in a group show at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in L.A. When the curators hesitated about shipping her huge, heavy ceramics, she offered to send a few of the new paintings instead. The pieces were a hit and a few sold. This was just before 9/11.

“After 9/11, people started posting little bios of those who had died. These biographies gave people a voice, somehow, their own individuality. I had been making up these little bios for my paintings, and I thought, ‘I want to keep doing this.’ ”

Karver’s biographies remind us that we’re not alone in our endless mental planning and scheming, our fretting and problem-solving and rehashing of minor slights. Being cursed with an annoying “inner roommate” is part of the universal human condition, and remembering this fact that can help generate self-compassion, and a good laugh.

See Sherry Karver’s works at Sue Greenwood Fine Art in Laguna Beach, and on her website sherrykarver.com. Her exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art, called “Collective Mythologies,” opens April 28.

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles and the author of the book “Splitopia.”