JTF (just the facts): Published in 2012 by Mörel Books (here). Hardcover, 48 pages, with 21 black and white images. There are no essays or texts. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: When describing classic nudes from photographic history, we often refer to the bodies as being “sculptural”, where the curve of a hip or the bend of an arm is somehow abstracted beyond its fleshy existence into an elemental realm of line and form. Asger Carlsen’s new book Hester takes the concept of the sculptural female nude to its ultimate limit, where constructed “bodies” are assembled mad scientist-style into impossible Frankenstein combinations of merged musculature and borrowed limbs. His results are at once reverential to the aesthetic traditions of the genre and deeply unsettling.
Posed against the white walls and bare wood floors of a studio, Carlen’s nudes seem at first glance to take their cues from any number of pared down photographic studies of the human form – unadorned flesh reduced to its simplest essence. But Carlsen’s digital concoctions quickly disrupt this conclusion, sending us down the rabbit hole of mind bending distortions, scary deformities, and stomach turning mutations. Arms become legs, spines are twisted back to front, and bulging limbs explode from unnatural locations. Many of the headless bodies are reduced to smooth skinned torsos and blocky masses of flesh, with folds of skin borrowed from one location and grafted somewhere else.
While Carlsen’s previous body of work had an element of dark humor, these photographs never take on a jokey feeling, even when one of his nudes has three ass cheeks. Several of Carlsen’s forms seem reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s surreal poupee, especially when legs extend in opposite directions. Others seem to borrow from Francis Bacon’s melted faces and distended bodies, but without the raw psychological emotion; Carlsen’s mute bodies writhe and bend in equally disturbing ways, but they are generally free of buried anguish. Carlsen’s innovation is that he has truly broken the nude down into component parts, turning each piece of skin and bone into a malleable puzzle piece, to be mixed and matched in seemingly endless deadpan combinations. Compared to normal human bodies, his constructions are in some sense altogether horrifying, like some questionable medical experiment gone tragically wrong. But their apparent realism (especially in the way light glances off skin) keeps the viewer off guard, forcing us to constantly match his fabrications with our own knowledge of how bodies actually fit together.
For all their creepy oddness, I think these works are a terrific example of digital manipulation used smartly. By staying within the boundaries of certain visual conventions, his constructed figures start off with an assumption of plausibility, which enhances their power when the inversion finally comes. Carlsen’s nudes would make a great ending to a traditional historical survey of the genre, effectively yanking the rug out from under the previously contented visitors.
Collector’s POV: Asger Carlsen doesn’t appear to have US gallery representation, but V1 Gallery in Copenhagen (here) has prints available. Carlsen’s work has little or no secondary market history, so gallery retail is likely the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.