Karen Asher: Class
by Madeline Bogoch
To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.
—Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal (1949)
Karen Asher’s Blanket (2015), a photo from her 2016 exhibition The Full Catastrophe at Ace Art artist-run centre in Winnipeg, features a topless model whose entire head is obscured by a duvet, which they hold in place with their arms stretched overhead. The image is at once raw and composed, private and performative, concealed and exposed, and it is in Asher’s ability to navigate the tension between such contradictions that her style as an artist emerges. Having established her practice as a photographer, Asher’s recent exhibition Class represents the artist’s first foray into video and installation. The gallery space has been drastically altered to reflect a composite conjuration of clubs and bars that played host to Asher’s formative years; pleather furniture, checkered linoleum, disco balls and a neon sign contribute to this elaborate reconstruction, materializing as equal parts gauche and glam. Embracing a self-aware engagement with the gaudy, Asher explores the metrics of good and bad taste, and examines the relationship between class and aesthetics, particularly how these significations have been disrupted by the tendency of subcultures to re-author their own semiotics of style. Class demonstrates and wields this capacity, harnessing the material trappings of tastelessness to great effect, and demonstrating through them the capacity of style as a vehicle of subversion.
The focal point of the installation is a large projection of Asher’s video, around which the furnishings are oriented. Throughout the film, silk-clad subjects frolic around the bright red set, dancing, stretching, embracing and even assembling into a conga line at one point. The choreography of the video shifts alongside Asher’s eclectic soundtrack, from upbeat, disco dance numbers to abstract, ambient tableaus, during which the correlation to Asher’s photographic work is most clearly visible. In one of these slower moments, a topless performer arranges a bundle of tinsel over her head, striking a distinct resemblance to the model of Blanket. But whereas the partial visibility of the subject in the photograph suggests intrusion into a private moment, the elaborate mise en scène of the installation invites viewers to become inhabitants rather than voyeurs. Asher has often chosen to work with those she knows well, and her intimacy with the cast allows a tenderness to flourish. Even in the midst of bold physical exposure, the autonomy of the performers is evident, and it is clear that the desires enacted are entirely their own. Like any great night, the film eventually winds down: the friends and lovers slumber and slow dance, evoking the ecstatic bliss and exhaustion experienced at the culmination of a party. In the dreamy, surreal settings of Class, there is an essence of authenticity and spontaneity generated by Asher’s ability to negotiate the contradicting aesthetic terrain between banality and eccentricity.
Complementing the installation are a selection of glossy, large-scale photographs of dancers in pose— some clad in aerobics-esque bodysuits, others balletic and poised—casually propped up against the walls. In contrast to her usual mode of exhibiting photographs, these images appear to serve more as ornament than as works in their own right—ornament that goes a long way to reinforce the atmosphere Asher has cultivated. Discussing her rationale to display these images as such, Asher recalled an early conversation she had with the show’s curator, Jenifer Papararo, during which she prompted Asher to take the photographs off the wall. The resulting work charts distinctly new territory, gracefully translating Asher’s idiosyncratic style to film and installation, while retaining a vestige of the aesthetics ubiquitous to more ad hoc modes, like party pics, band shoots and zine culture.
Facing the entrance of the show is a neon sign displaying CLASSY, written in cursive text, though the “y” flickers, causing an alternation between the words “class” and “classy.” The unpredictable addition and subtraction of this suffix raises questions of agency: class is an imposed social stratification, whereas what is deemed “classy” largely remains subjective and self-determined (although the latter is often a product of the former). Class dwells in this dynamic, mobilizing offbeat expressions of style to critique cultural hegemony and the arbitration of taste. Though the exhibition’s title treads into loaded territory, a concomitant political weight is never directly addressed in the show; instead, Asher chooses to approach the concept obliquely, through an unbridled celebration of style as a method of repossessing social appraisal.
In the exhibition essay for Full Catastrophe, writer Colin Smith noted the overlap of Asher’s brazen edge and vintage eccentricity with camp, but went on to remark that “her sincerity runs interference” on her qualifying camp merits—a sentiment that remains true here. While the overlaps are hard to ignore, ultimately camp seems reductive considering the earnestness of Asher’s labour of love between collaborators, memories and materials, which delivers an overwhelming affect of warmth to the space. Through this wholehearted approach, Class liberates its tacky furnishings from their sub-prime status, animating them with a sense of disobedience and grandeur. More than nostalgia, Asher seems interested in the creative liberty of challenging and remaking meaning. In defiance of what’s left of the mutual exclusivity between so-called high and low culture, Class invites viewers to indulge in these contradictions, which is perhaps Asher’s way of advocating for pleasure over conceit, and sincerity over irony, thus fulfilling Genet’s estimation of elegance.