Aaron R. Turner’s practice comprises two distinctive bodies of work. Both offer a path to a center where they intermingle in what seems a magical moment of alchemy. One methodology encompasses a complex investigation of illumination and shadow, as found in the Light Studies series, which depicts the private corners of the artist’s life. The other body of work, Black Alchemy, explores art history and black history within a constructivist, collage-based framework.
Black Alchemy began in 2013. Within that timeframe, the sequence documents a vivacious evolution in Turner’s way of seeing and, in turn, rupturing the image. There is a mindfulness that functions as an underpinning throughout his work, an elusive gentleness in the simultaneous presence and absence of his agency as a black male photographer. This is expansive and endearing. The history of photography carries with it a history of abstraction. Artists have used the medium since its inception to transform, to lift loose the appearances of the world, and to present us with images that may shift our perception. Within the vast definition of abstraction, Turner operates from the position of a minimalist. Occasionally he directly references the influence of photographers such as Leslie Hewitt, paying homage by dedicating a piece to her. This generative spirit is an apparent aspect of Turner’s work.
Occasionally the viewer can become lost in a geometric paper ocean, one lacking signifiers beyond the idea that the medium is the message. But anchors appear, references either in the titles or directly as what they are, portraits. Here I’m thinking of the piece, Looking at Drue King (2018).
In another tribute piece titled LeWitt, Thomas, we see a post-post-black mash-up of art history and points of influence overdue for re-interpretation. With the use of collage, folding of paper, and re-positioning of historic narrative pressed against the geometry of his composition, the artist’s gesture both juxtaposes and equalizes Alma Thomas and Sol LeWitt. In acknowledging these seemingly divergent sources of influence, Turner carves a necessary space for himself. This more inclusive narrative of art history takes a step toward closing the gulf between African American modes of cultural production and the “cannon” by pointing out exactly which modernist histories are seen and heard and which the dominant narrative excludes.
The repetitive nature of Alma Thomas’s mark-making as a color field painter says, “I’m here,” over and over again, an assertion of her tenacity and her place within the story of modern art. In this instance, Turner suggests, with each bend of the paper, each geometric rhizomatic composition, his investment in pedagogy. Beyond that, in the history of image-making and the complex role that black artists play within it, he strives for the same tenacity through his own syntax. However, he does this in relation to a larger matrix suggesting “we” are here—the universal “we” clearly in relationship to black cultural production.
Light Studies is where Turner’s formalist leanings take the viewer toward softer, more poetic gestures. Full of mystery, yet not ominous, these untitled, vague intimations of “place” and “family” reach beyond otherness and touch upon a fullness one feels when alone in a space. This occurs mostly in the images free of the figure. There is an intangible strength residing in the solitary shadows of Turner’s photographic universe. This intimacy is challenging in its attempts to address both the microscopic moments of an African American man’s solitude and the immense cosmos of the history of image-making. The intimacy of blankets, chairs, window ledge corners, solitary shadows—all magnify the dialogue about abstraction and begin to break apart essentialist expectations surrounding black artistic production.
Contrary to the previously mentioned works of homage, Turner seeks personal reward from seeing while striving to break down and rebuild ideas of one’s relationship to site, to community, and to understanding the role of the black artist in private. In a sense Turner offers a “backstage” glimpse into the core of his burgeoning practice. Turner satisfies both the micro and macro relationships of being a maker, oscillating between addressing a collective solidarity and the extremely personal. By knowingly adopting the task of artist as alchemist, he is able to reveal and transform this binary aspect of his practice in equal measure. Photography, perhaps over and above painting, is the perfect vehicle for such activity—shifting between that which is objectively photographed and that which might be the subjectively transcendent image.
Jennie C. Jones is a visual and sonic artist. She is MFA faculty at Bard College and a Critic at Yale School of Art. www.jenniecjones.com
Aaron Turner lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and completed his residency at Light Work in August 2018.