Head: Surface details

by Layla Leiman

MJ Turpin
Lumo green pervades MJ Turpin’s exhibition at Hazard Gallery

Self-proclaimed rebel of the commercial art world, MJ Turpin’s multi-disciplinary work can be read as a challenge to the status quo of what is considered high art. He achieves this through his use of materials, like spray paint, often associated with popular culture, graphic abstraction and provocative performances. His recent solo exhibition, Channeling the Material, at Hazard Gallery in Joburg can be viewed likewise, as a middle finger to the art world in but it can also be seen as a sustained and personal meditation on the qualities of material and the pure process of art-making.

Turpin has been utilising abstraction and conceptualism in his work for many years. A statement accompanying the exhibition suggests it is a continuation of this, however, the focus is decidedly against interpretation. Turpin would have us read the works at face value. In 5am, a mixed media on canvas work, the entire surface has been covered in silver spray paint. Beneath this mercurial layer, the surface of the canvas is punctuated by a complex pattern of impasto texture. One’s first thought is of the surface of the moon, but this would be a mistake. In this work, as in all the others, Turpin’s emphasis is on the materials first and foremost and the process of working with them. The lines, brushstrokes, raw materials like paper and linen, and pigments are the subject matter and the surface details serve as a caution against trying to penetrate the works looking for deeper meaning.

As such the exhibition statement consists of a short descriptive paragraph followed by a list of materials. While at first glance banal, this list is in fact the DNA of the exhibition – the concept, form and subject matter.

Four of the five sculpture works in Channeling the Material feature bronze twig-like structures with polished ends triumphantly resting atop a granite, aluminium and luminous green Perspex bases that in turn are supported by sleek pedestals made from powder coated mild steel. The organic shapes are found objects – bronze casting channels from Workhorse Foundry – “offcuts” from a casting for a William Kentridge work. Elevated here to covetable art object, they poke a finger at the art world establishment and ascribed artistic value, while simultaneously reflecting a genuine appreciation of raw materials and craftsmanship. In the lengthily titled The true value of art should at all costs not be given or controlled by the artist. Questioning death and value control systems, a bronze cast duiker skull resting on a concrete core sample initially brings to mind Damien Hirst’s glitzy diamond encrusted skull, but then resolves into a meditation on excavation; a neat reverse metaphor for reading too deeply into the show.

MJ Turpin
Zombie Abstraction for Delivery At 3am

In the past, Turpin’s sculptural and wall-mounted art has been exhibited together with other artists’ work in group shows, or alongside the artist himself accompanying a performance aspect. In the striped back “white cube” space of the Hazard Gallery, Turpin’s work is given room for its aesthetic sensibility to come into view. Hazard Gallery co-founder and curator Jonathan Freemantle describes the exhibition as a “love letter to materials”, and says that in curating the show they deliberately pared it back, stripping away anything that wasn’t essential to the body of work. The spatial layout of the gallery, comprising different rooms of varying sizes, enhances this. Each room becomes a micro gallery that pushes you up close and personal with the artworks to become immersed in their materiality.

The marks that Turpin has made on the canvases and paper sit between painting and drawing. In the two Layered Moments works the marks are loose and fluid. Paint has been splotched and splattered on the canvas, pooling and dripping. You can feel the artist’s gesture in making these marks. In the Zombie Abstraction for Delivery at 3am series, the painterly streak has become more restrained and graphic. In Drawings for Insomniacs I, the recurring “M” motif rests above a loose nest of swooping lead pencil lines. While Turpin’s signature use of lumo green is present in this exhibition it is not the defining feature, instead acting like a lure, drawing the eye into the picture frame to explore the surface detail therein. Channeling the Material marks an intriguing shift in Turpin’s practice that sees him step back from the centre of the work, yet in the distinct marks, surface texture and found materials, a lasting impression of his aesthetic concerns remains.

Channeling the Material showed at the Hazard Gallery

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