People Watching: The Art of Sherry Karver

Although it captivated the late Victorians, physiognomy, or the assessment of character through appearance, is seldom thought of today. In literature, nineteenth century writers such as Poe and Baudelaire delighted in scrutinising the face of each and every passerby as a means of gleaning an insight into their past or personality. In art, Leonardo da Vinci dismissed physiognomy as having “no scientific foundation,” an opinion that many of us today have now embraced, despite the fact that we continue to read faces while walking in the city.

California based artist Sherry Karver has given a twenty first century edge to physiognomic practices with her People Watching series, exhibiting at the Rebecca Hossack Conway Street Gallery in September. Karver’s paintings originate from photographs she has taken on the city streets. Combing traditional painting with photography, digital technology to splice old photographs with new, narrative text and resin surface on wood panels, the result is a hybrid approach that she believes pushes beyond the conventional boundaries of each medium.

In essence, Karver’s paintings each capture one fleeting moment of city life. The viewer takes a vantage point similar to that of Baudelaire’s flâneur – a spectator, part of the crowd, yet at the same time apart from the relentless flow of mass human transit. So many elements of our urban existence prevent us from looking at faces – shyness, fear, or the simple nagging impatience we have to get from A to B in as little time as possible.

Walter Benjamin writes that “for the flâneur, the crowd is a veil hiding the masses”. Karver’s work pulls back this veil urging us to look at the individual rather than the faceless multitude. She does so by superimposing flash fiction biographies onto the bodies of specific subjects.

In “Fleeting Moment,” a work set in Grand Central Terminal, a favourite location of Karver’s, a red headed man walks by the ticket booths, his biography reads: “32 yr. old architect from Sydney, specializes in designing kangaroo habitats, had always thought he would be building huge skyscrapers, but couldn’t do the math.” He walks alone, disconnected from those around him. Meanwhile, a woman in a burgundy jacket leans against the luggage rail, her biography revealing her to be a dairy farmer and grandmother of seven from Minnesota.

The position in which the artist places us is by no means a strictly comfortable one. By peeping under the veil of the crowd, we are violating personal privacy – we become the voyeur. Granted, the superimposed biographical narratives are mere speculation on the part of the artist, yet when we begin to fantasize about the lives of strangers, they rapidly become familiar to us. By reading a stranger’s appearance, we somehow feel that we can read their inner world. We deceive ourselves that we know them, or at least their ‘type’.

Karver’s subjects are no longer strangers. She makes the anonymous passerby knowable, perhaps even likeable, uniting pedestrians as a congregation within each frame. The result is an elegant and striking artistic response to the numbing sense of loneliness and alienation present in large cities.

Karver’s work, however, is not borne out of a rigid theoretical framework. She is by no means attempting to breathe life into the slumbering corpse of the nineteenth century flâneur. She simply connects with “the energy of people in public places, the shadows they cast, and how they really don’t interact with each other, even though they are all together (collectively alone)”.

And perhaps this is the true lure of Karver’s work, it captures the delicious discomfort of urban voyeurism – an act in which we all surreptitiously indulge – but in an age when the majority of us are hunched over our mobile phones during our daily commute, it also asks us to look up, to dissect the crowd, and ponder the complexity of individual lives.

Sherry Karver: People Watching will be at the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2A Conway Street, London, W1T 6BA, from 3-27 September 2014.