sherry karver

“The Return of Light,” 2009,
Photo images, oil, narrative text on wood panel, 32″ x 32″
Photo: courtesy Sue Greenwood Fine Art

Addressing urban living, webcams, and other forms of surveillance, Oakland artist Sherry Karver creates work that deals “with a multitude of issues concerning each of us today, such as loneliness and alienation in our fast-paced society.” Her photo-based paintings and sculptures reference masses of people in a highly technological age. As Karver explains, her work “expands and shifts parameters of traditional photography by combining them with digital technology, oil painting, mixed media and text,” portraying the inner and outer life of today’s cosmopolitan resident. For her Urban/City series, began in 2000, Karver searched New York City streets and metropolitan locales such as Grand Central Station, where there is a constant flow of people. Using photos that she takes in different cities, she splices freely between them, so that, for instance, a dog walked in Chicago is walked by a different owner in Manhattan. In addition, she often writes original text imagining the inner lives of these people, “since we each have a story to tell.”

To construct the works, Karver mounts her B&W prints on wooden panels which she overlays with many layers of thinned oil glazes, building up color using techniques of old masters. Superimposing her text on these anonymous people, the images become like neon signs found in big cities, where words stream across giant screens, telling of traffic, movies, news and sales. Or, alternately, her words become like text messages, or subtitles in a foreign movie. Her engaging dialogue ranges from poignant to humorous, as “the viewer focuses on experiencing the artwork, becoming part of the process in reading it, rather than looking at a painting from a distance.” Her use of rich colors, enhanced by a glossy surface, adds another layer to the work, and expands the image by reflecting the viewer within the painting. Then there is her use of deep space and perspective. In depicting the pulse of the city, and arranging each walker in a variety of spatial directions, Karver hit upon a Hofmannesque idea: that the internal relationship of shapes can expand the external space of the image. Meaning: while Karver focuses on a few individuals, through its compositional energy, the painting itself conveys the enormity of the urban experience.

Her latest body of work, began in 2005, contains two distinct series on surveillance and webcams. The first employs antique suitcases, which she cuts open and places light boxes inside. The back-lit translucent image placed in each light box is an X-ray of the inner contents of a suitcase as seen in airport screening machines; however, Karver manipulates these images by introducing guns or other contraband, adding chilling suggestions of danger lurking within. The other series, appropriating photos downloaded from public Internet surveillance webcams around the world, leaves the viewer with an unsettling feeling of being constantly watched. “Webcams are a fact of our current times,” Karver observes. “They are the historians of our contemporary era. I find it fascinating to utilize these images within a fine art context, regardless of what their political implications might be.”

Karver has never shied away from exploring media. She worked in clay before starting her photo-based oil paintings, and still teaches ceramics at Laney College in Oakland. “It really wasn’t such a major change, since my ceramic wall sculptures were two-dimensional, hung on the wall, and had painted surfaces on which I eventually introduced photography. I feel equally comfortable going from one of the oldest materials around-clay-to the most contemporary, the computer.” Her cavernous studio, in the former Rockridge Women’s Club in Oakland, offers a soaring 25 foot high ceiling and huge windows: “the perfect space to allow me the freedom to explore and develop my ideas.”

Sherry Karver will be in a group show with her surveillance art at the de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara, from April 12 – June 28, 2009. Karver is represented by Sue Greenwood Fine Art in Laguna Beach, Lisa Harris Gallery in Seattle, and Kim Foster in New York, where she will have a solo show with her “Urban/City” series from September 12 – October 10, 2009.