BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 15 FEB 17
Featured in
Issue 185

New Questions

How Colleen Asper's paintings challenge traditional representations of the body

BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 15 FEB 17

A protester holds an empty placard in Colleen Asper’s painting Ptyx (2012). In another work, {black, hands} (2013), gloved hands embrace a blank rectangle; in a third canvas, {lightbox, hands} (2015), they clutch a light box. All the panels are lovingly detailed: the first two as gradients of black and grey while, in the third, the fluorescent light illuminates the fingers from behind with a fuzzy glow. The works appear realistic but the rectangles conceal whoever holds them. Asper paints with excessive detail – down to the individual hairs on a woman’s head or the finger joints of a hand – yet something breaks down. Her work is representational but, at the same time, it refuses to represent, as if the real subject of her painting is how representation fails.

I often think of this kind of failure in language. I can describe something to you – one of Asper’s paintings, say – and the more words I use, the larger the gap between the object and my description seemingly becomes. This gap is Asper’s territory, and she explores it in both writing and painting, using the tools of realism, which should cover over those lacunae.

Colleen Asper, {lightbox, hands}, 2015, oil on panel, 69 x 46 cm. Courtesy: the artist and P!, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

As a writer, Asper is a fan of the precise description found in 19th-century novels. With Marika Kandelaki, she created Dictionary of the Hole (2012–16): an alphabet in which the pair use their bodies to form letters. Arms emerge from folds, legs stick out from walls, shoulders curve to create a C, elbows bend in a D. Each letter represents a synonym for ‘hole’ (sometimes the connection is as loose as in G for ‘girl/god’ or T for ‘trust’), and is accompanied by an epigrammatic story of absence. F is about the failures of the heart muscle while in A, for ‘aperture’, a woman, Anna, finds a picnic table and – in a plot worthy of Henry James’s psychological fiction – discovers her name graffitied into it; she digs into the letters, creating a hole with a creepy revelation. J, O, S and U present revisions of James’s 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle. In this story, the protagonist keeps expecting something unspeakable to take place at some future point in his life, so refuses to marry or commit to anything. Often read as a parable for the author’s sexuality, the anticipated event never happens but its absence, its expectation, defines the characters’ lives.

For the last two years, Asper has been developing a a series of oil paintings of women in yoga poses, glazed to create luminous effects, which defy the expectations of portraiture. In {forward fold, legs wide; triple triangle} (2014), one woman is bent over, another practises a shoulder stand, while a third assumes child’s pose; none of their faces are revealed. With the subjects depicted at life-size and squashed into the canvas, the work induces a sense of claustrophobia – partly from the plethora of details, partly from the way the yoga mat frames the composition. In {kneeling, head on clasped arms; double rectangle} (2015), a woman in white is bent double over her rectangular mat, which is itself a double for the canvas. The top and the bottom of the mat and canvas line up, tightly framing the woman’s body; to create the illusion of depth, the sides of the mat slant in, creating a queasy sense of something awry. The woman’s vertebrae, the locks of her hair, her nails and hands, the wrinkles of her shirt are all rendered precisely. Yet, despite that precision, this portrait, like the others in the series, offers no sense of the sitter.

Asper’s refusal to represent in traditional ways serves as a feminist take on the gaze. She doesn’t show anything that might individuate her subjects. Even the artist’s decision to depict the women in yoga poses is relevant, since yoga is designed to empty the practitioner’s mind in preparation for meditation. ‘Look closely’, Asper says, ‘and any representation is full of holes. Proliferating them is a way of moving away from looking as a form of ownership, a way of radically equalizing the gaze.’

‘Women are not the void but we can be the puncture.’
Colleen Asper

This seems like an apt response in our age of over-representation, in broadcast media and online. It feels like the artist is offering a third way, something between the empirical and subjective. Her yoga paintings make me think of Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1532–34): they have the same attention to detail and similarly cram their figures into confined spaces. Cromwell is depicted dour and jowly, wearing a big, fat ring. Painted in profile, he’s like a pyramid: solid, all power. Every element of Holbein’s work reveals Cromwell as subject. Asper paints with the same skill, even the same strangeness, but she refuses to give away anything about her sitters’ personalities. In an age of acute image consciousness, in which images are increasingly fixed and polished, the artist’s idea of proliferating the chinks in representation seems a way of liberating identities.

A few years ago, Asper wanted to paint a self-portrait. She was vexed by the notion that such an undertaking is supposed to reveal some broader understanding of the artist-as-author: that by being the object of the work you automatically also become its subject. Dancers, for instance, often appear in work they have choreographed themselves, but the piece isn’t assumed to be about them. How, Asper wondered, could she be the subject of a painting without it being about her? The artist’s response was a series of Google self-portraits. One is just her name depicted in an online search bar. In another, Google/olGoeg (2010), which has a slapstick feel to it, papier-mâché letters spelling out ‘Google’ fall down on the artist, pinning her to the studio floor. It’s as though she has been undone by the algorithms or a search engine could fix her in one place.

These portraits developed into a series of life-size monochromes, {spektrum, hands} (2016), in which Asper is entirely concealed. Two gloved hands hold a rectangular panel, a double of the picture plane: the painting becomes the artist’s stand-in (representation as lacuna). Yet, there’s a sense of comedy, too. It’s easy for me to imagine this as a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film: woman behind plank, plank as ploy. The series is a ghost of Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum V (1969), installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, although Asper has five repeated panels – in blue, purple, pink, orange and yellow – to Kelly’s original 13.

Colleen Asper, {spectrum, hands}, 2016, oil on panel, 41 x 152 cm. Courtesy: the artist and On Stellar Rays, New York; photograph: Kirsten Kilponen

In these works, Asper wipes away the last vestiges of self from the self-portrait, her gloves hiding her ‘artist’s hands’ and, with them, expunging everything that conservative phrase from connoisseurship connotes. This fixation on the ‘artist’s hand’ has also been a hallmark of modernist discourse, from abstract expressionism through minimalism and beyond. Asper’s continued exploration of that obsession serves only as a means of questioning it. Indeed, her technique is so refined that it is impossible to identify the brushstrokes or painterly marks that have often been regarded, in various movements and moments over the past 60 years, as the last romantic gasp of the artist’s self –  such as in abstract expressionism, for instance, where the gesture was seen as a revelation of ego (usually a male ego). Asper, by contrast, hides both hands and marks. This refusal creates a new kind of abstraction: one that removes the self as revelation of truth, yet, by probing these very concerns, retains a dialogue with modernism and its teleology.

For her 2016 solo show at On Stellar Rays in New York, Asper did a performance with the painter Justin Lieberman: a dialogue between Monobody and Nobody. Monobody (Lieberman) was a Clement Greenberg character, the unified self under modernism. Nobody (Asper) was a woman painter and burlesque performer. The event was manic and comic as they talked about the paintings, culture, god, unity and nothingness. ‘Women are not the void but we can be the puncture,’ Asper declared. Then, she painted lipstick on Monobody’s lips. It was like a parting shot to a vision of art history, and maybe something that can open new questions about representation, ones that seem more apt for our age.

Colleen Asper lives and works in New York, USA. In 2016, she had a solo exhibition at On Stellar Rays, New York, debuted a work with Marika Kandelaki as part of the New Commissions Program at Art in General, New York, and had a two-person show at P!, New York.

Main image: Colleen Asper, {kneeling, head on clasped arms; double rectangle} (details), 2015, oil on canvas, 99 x 64 cm. Courtesy: the artist and On Stellar Rays, New York; photograph: Kirsten Kilponen

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.