I first met Caroline Absher—by chance—at a nameless exhibition in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City. The artwork was varied and the crowd even more so, yet this diverse bunch drifted decidedly towards one painting in particular: a scene of two women floating in glistening water, framed by flowing marks that ranged in appearance from brushstroke to wave. Newly graduated from Pratt Institute, Absher’s work already had the power to illuminate beauty, gesture to transformation, and inspire awe.
Skip a few years forward and South Carolina-born Absher has already exhibited her paintings all over the globe. I most recently met with Absher on the eve of her current exhibition at The Journal Gallery in New York City. She was putting the finishing touches on her latest body of work, a series driven by the idea of witnessing as it applies to both universal and individual experiences.
On this beautiful morning in early October, Absher threw open the door to her Williamsburg studio and ushered me in, beelining for the coffee machine by the doorway. “I know you don’t have much time, so let me get this going!” she exclaimed as she turned on the machine, proceeding to lead me swiftly into the studio. The walls were more canvas than wall and the palette more paint than palette; a family of houseplants lined the splattered windowsill. The paintings were full of mesmerizing figures wrapped in rich atmosphere, employing transparent washes and musical strokes to articulate epic natural phenomena and human wonder. While introducing me to each work and answering my questions, Absher was engaging yet pensive (when she pauses to choose her words, she seems to visit another realm). Her sage musings are always elevated by a youthful excitement. We went on to discuss looking inward in order to make a collective impact, painting challenges, and the power of a cosmic wink.
Maria Owen: You’re currently working on a new series for your show with Tennis Elbow at The Journal Gallery in New York. It was born from the question: Why do we look beyond our planet for wonder and doom when these things are already so plentiful here on Earth? Can you elaborate a bit?
Caroline Absher: This question in itself is my concept, and I don’t have the answer. Some people love to look for signs from the universe. Those few who seem to know a secret language have been in my sphere for years, but I was never on their level. Recently I have been in a place where so much change, joy, and sadness happened at the same time. Looking for clues and trying to pick up on signs as best I could became a constant practice. I also realized the only way to leave a positive mark is to start from the center. The more I understood my past and connected the dots, the louder and more frequent the signs became. I think looking to the “beyond” in whatever way you choose is the same thing as listening to yourself, and more people doing it will make the world a more manageable place.
MO: Does this theme of witnessing come up in your own life? To what kind of events do you find yourself serving as a witness?
CA: Since I was old enough to work, I’d spend basically every penny I earned on traveling, choosing freelance jobs to get by so that I could travel whenever possible. For a long time I was hell-bent on collecting experiences, a race against the clock. I don’t know why, but as a child I had a deep awareness of mortality. Looking back, maybe it was healthy, because it forced me to follow desire wherever it led me. But I’m still struck by this pang of tragic sadness when something beautiful and perfect occurs. Like when that particular dark orange sunset on an avenue hits a pedestrian just so, the slow motion moments—I feel like someone is stabbing me in the heart!
A recent example, I climbed Mount Olympus in Greece alone while suffering my final few months of addiction. Climbing a mythic mountain all alone with your thoughts at a difficult time, asking the pagan gods for strength as the wind almost blasts you off the mountaintop—that’s an event. The day I descended, I learned Sufjan Stevens (I’m a big fan and have seen him perform an embarrassing number of times) had released a song titled “Olympus” that morning. I stood in the little city square listening to it, legs wobbling, seeing my path clearly for the first time. It’s called a cosmic wink, and a perfect way to describe these paintings.
MO: Many of your paintings are figure driven. Do these people allow you to convey certain ideas symbolically, or are they more linked to specific memories and experiences?
CA: The figure is a way to convey my ideas symbolically, and if they are in my image, it’s because I am most familiar with my own body. They are not made as self portraits, but how they are received is not up to me. I really love abstraction, too. Once you add the figure, you’re introducing a huge number of rules: the laws of nature, the way we see ourselves, our internalized notion of beauty, and light. It’s so hard to get everything aligned. I love that challenge right now. The abstractions come naturally, so the figure is my way to keep pushing.
My experience of painting is having an all-consuming problem to solve, the kind that keeps you up day and night. It’s hard to imagine making paintings without the weeks-long internal obsession. I am currently learning how to pose new problems in abstraction—maybe it’s about knowing which questions to ask.
MO: What are you currently reading, watching, or learning right now? How might that inform your practice?
CA: I am currently re-reading some Bell Hooks and Zadie Smith, and a wonderful book of Duchamp interviews that fits perfectly in my pocket. Finishing Franny and Zooey for the first time recently gave me a good subway cry, which hadn’t happened in a few years. I am constantly educating myself on global politics and carefully taking note of the narratives being pushed by the media on both sides. Sometimes I read every article published about the same event, which will leave you reeling for days. Trying to exercise my critical thinking muscles as much as possible because the social media echo chamber has definitely melted my brain. I feel like being able to form your own well researched and informed opinion is the most important skill in our new mind-numbing digital existence. That relates to being able to hear your own voice, too. It’s all connected!
Caroline Absher’s exhibition is on view through November 12 at Tennis Elbow at The Journal Gallery, New York, NY.