Stranger Friends

CMay gallery presents Jenn Berger’s Stranger Friends, a collection of drawings and sculptures based on people the artist encounters by chance.


Berger asks each stranger if she may take their photograph in exchange for a drawing, then spends months drawing from the resulting image. Including an abundance of detail from the photograph, she doesn’t discriminate between marks on the subject’s skin and what may be digital noise on the image – thus purposefully confusing (and merging) the two. The exacting result is in fact a drawing of the surface of a digital print.


During the drawing process, Berger begins to feel as if she knows each subject, a phenomenon not unlike the effects of contemporary social media, in which we often develop a feeling of closeness to acquaintances despite having had little or no in-person interactions with them. When so much of our time is spent looking at one another through images, what does it now mean to know someone, to be a stranger or a friend?


To bring these strangers to further life, Berger creates three-dimensional versions utilizing vinyl printouts as the “skin” formed over contoured “bodies” in a meticulous process that references taxidermy as well as doll-making, effigies, and puppetry. Their transformation from initial meeting to photo to drawing to sculpture nods to a digital-age diaspora, in which online avatars expand a person’s identity beyond their bodily existence.


Berger’s previous portraits of people and animals combine projected videos with drawing and sculpture to form one cohesive image. Look At Me; Turn Around (2018) merges video footage (of a giraffe’s head) with drawing (of its neck and legs) and sculpture (of the mid-section) to form a seated life-size giraffe. These distinct types of representation cohere into a single figure while simultaneously remaining in fragments, questioning where this cobbled together giraffe comes to life. Stranger Friends extends this line of inquiry by examining what is real and imagined in our relationships to others, at a time when we often experience one another in a mediated and distanced manner.


Suspended together in the gallery, these fragmented figures form an interconnected cast of characters that resist simple classification systems, as is often the case with portrait projects. It is instead made up of individuals of disparate ages, backgrounds, and locations, linked only by their brief encounters with the artist. These encounters themselves raise certain questions: Why these particular strangers? Why then and there? What draws us to certain people over others? What is connection, exactly, and what is the mystery behind it?


Throughout the project, Berger has imagined various narratives for her subjects, from mundane biographies to post-apocalyptic scenarios in which characters of diverse backgrounds work together to form new societies. Such fantasies reflect our communal instinct, both the primal as well as the ultramodern desire to create communities when relationships are no longer bound by physical proximity.