Interview with Johannesburg artist Joe Turpin

July 25, 2019 10:01 AM

Is there anything about your work that you would consider to be poetic?

There is. I think a work can have a poetic nature when it presents itself in a light of story or description. I feel that emotions, and understandings hide beneath my work, and only certain people feel or see them. Certain experiences I have gone through, felt, and then speak about in my work. But they are always there. Not visible to everybody… this is poetic to me.

New York

Do you feel that the artist needs to find a certain space for themselves, and there work? Or are they kind of nomadic?

Yes certainly, but that does not mean the artist needs to leave where they are uncomfortable or misunderstood. There is a saying that no man can be a prophet in his own country. I think it is true, but what can be learned where the artist does become accepted, should be brought back. It is good not be stagnant, especially if my work would be misunderstood, problematized or critiqued (unfairly, that is). It is good to wander. Wander and come home with the gatherings.

Do you feel that changes, or breaks, in your work are good or bad?

It depends on the reasoning for such changes. For me it has been very good, and healthy, so far. My work has moved into a less expressive and more conceptual realm. Some artists change – or remain the same and cannot change even if they wanted to – for galleries, collectors or audiences you know. You can become stuck or leave behind a good thing completely to become something you are not. Fortunately I am still in an emerging space just after art school where I can constantly experiment and form my own language – which I thought I had, but I didn’t! My passion remains painting however. Like a musician running into the burning bar he was performing in to save his favourite guitar – that is I and the medium of painting.

What aspects do you draw from, from the work of other artists that you look at or study?

I tend to try and appreciate at first the message the artist is conveying. The narrative of the work… if I find that interesting and think “oh, this has become an artwork made about that moment or situation” then it makes me believe I can talk about other things… make artworks about things that I otherwise might have not considered. I think the way they convey that intention or message is the second thing, and this is where I decide if I like a work or not. Because it may be successful in it’s intention but that doesn’t mean I think the work is good! I also love the moment I view a work – the first striking colours or forms. I try to think about the viewer then seeing my work for the first time, what ecstasy it can give off!

What advice would you give to young, emerging painters?

This is interesting because I’ve been asked this about young artists in general but not painters. Well… A mentor told me that it is being a painter that saved me. I would urge young painters to ask themselves what the medium owes them, and what they owe the medium!

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Alexander Yulish was born in New York City in 1975. His father worked in PR and his mother was Barbara Pearlman, a famous artist and fashion illustrator. Yulish grew up near the Chelsea Hotel and spent his childhood surrounded by New York’s artistic elite. He learned to paint watching his mother in her studio as a young child, and went on to study fine art and English at Connecticut College. After graduating, Yulish moved to Los Angeles and worked a variety of jobs, including acting and setting up downtown music venues. Yulish continued painting on the side but only started, in his early thirties, to dedicate himself full time to his art. Since then, Yulish has had exhibitions in galleries around Los Angeles and New York City and has attracted the attention of art world heavy-hitters Eugenio López Alonso (founder of Museo Jumex) and JoAnne Colonna (Brillstein Entertainment partner), among others.

Yulish’s paintings are composed of shapes -- lines, circles, squares -- that hint at familiar subjects. In his earlier work the subjects hinted at were often large, human-like subjects. The Things You Said, for example, features a hand with painted red nails holding a coffee mug. The hand is attached to an arm, which is attached to a multi-colored torso made of various shapes and lines, which belongs to a person reclining on a couch. But the closer you examine the reclining person, and the rest of the painting, the harder it becomes to discern the body parts in any detail. Many of Yulish’s early paintings have this effect -- it’s largely a result of the shapes used in the composition of Yulish’s paintings, a line will form the outline of a torso and the leg of a chair in the background, or a pattern on the floor of the room, depending on how you look at the painting. In this way Yulish’s earlier work presents us with a paradox: in order to see what the subjects of the paintings are, we have to pay close attention to the details, but the closer we look, the less distinct the figures become.

This quality of Yulish’s paintings is probably a result of his studio practice. Yulish makes his art in staggered layers of acrylic paint. He starts with some shapes and lines, as though he were making any old abstract portrait. Then he adds a second layer of shapes, lines and figures, blending the new images with the old. Out of the chaos, figures and subjects begin to appear. Two intersecting lines could become a lamp, or a mirror, or a wall, depending on how Yulish feels and what he sees in his mind’s eye while he is painting. Yulish continues drawing until, emotionally and artistically, he’s ready to move to another part of the painting. As the image comes together, Yulish adjusts minor details in color and shape. Whether a torso will be blue and red or blue and yellow depends on the other parts of the painting. The finished work has to convey what Yulish was feeling

and thinking while he was painting. If some color or figure does not do that, it has to go. This lends a powerful honesty to Yulish’s paintings, they are as truthful as they are visceral.

But all of this is old news for the 43 year-old Yulish, who has been working diligently and excitedly on new work. Yulish’s latest paintings, which were shown at a small private exhibition in Watermill, mark a thematic and stylistic departure from the subject-centric works he made earlier in his career. Yulish still hints at animal and human subjects with the figures in his new paintings, but he does so less often and more carefully. The shapes which form the subjects are more ambiguous in Yulish’s new work -- a squiggly line forms what appears to be a human face, but could just as easily be a clock or some other part of an animal -- but the distinctions between the subjects are clearer and more precise. Because the subjects are more abstract, though, it can be harder to interpret the meanings of Yulish’s new work. The shapes do not form so much as suggest, leaving room for subjectivity and disagreement. Yulish’s artistic development is bringing him closer to Jackson Pollock and further from Picasso, two artists to whom Yulish has been compared.

One last thing about the new paintings, they seem to have a lot of flowers. At least, for me. The flowers in Yulish’s new paintings are the kinds of flowers that could be birds, or people, or arms. Because, in many of Yulish’s new paintings, he has abandoned a subject-background style of painting and image construction, he cannot rely on cryptic settings to convey his emotional and artistic state. Instead, Yulish has to communicate through the subjects themselves, through their details and their arrangement. In many of Yulish’s new paintings, he has obliterated the subject-background distinction by refusing to give prominence to any part or parts of the whole work. There are no guiding principles to help find the subject as there would be in, say, a room where the walls, the floor and the ceiling converge at a point in space. None of the honesty of Yulish’s earlier work is lost in his abandonment of the subject-background distinction because, presumably, he is still following his artistic (and emotional) instinct. The only difference, now, is that the viewer might not receive the message. Or, the viewer might receive the message but decide to project their own meaning, their own emotions and thoughts, onto the work. Either way, Yulish’s honesty remains throughout his new work, challenging our interpretive and artistic sensibilities as viewers in ways that Yulish has never done before. And, most importantly, reminding us that it feels good to be slapped by a new aesthetic quality every once in a while.

“It’s hard,” Durgin-Barnes tells me as I begin recording our conversation, “to balance becoming successful and staying true to yourself as an artist.” His entire life Durgin-Barnes has been fascinated by representational painting. As a kid he would read nature books and wander the wooded hiking paths of Washington state, trying to make drawings that capture the feeling, rather than the details, of being surrounded by nature. When he began working with oil paint he studied, and fell in love with, the “old masters:” Nicolas Poussin, Pierre Paul Prud’hon, Michelangelo. Classical and neo-classical inuences are clear in almost all of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings, which tend to feature incredibly detailed subjects in classically styled and noble compositions. The exact details of the scenes are less important than their arrangement, which conveys the feeling, and the message, of the painting. “I’m obsessed with allegory,” Durgin-Barnes mentions as he tells me about a holy grail conspiracy theory based in the angle of the shadow of an arm in Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. The overwhelming allegorical message in Durgin-Barnes’s work seems to be one of deep discomfort with capitalism. Tiny features like the letters “U.S.A.” below the striped U.S. ag on the back of a dancing woman in The Initiation of Pineapple, or the McDonald’s sign stretching high in the air behind smoking buildings and dying soldiers in War, convey an Orwellian attitude toward an omnipresent capitalist order. Even the use of light and shadow to accentuate a burning temple in the background of Mayan on Day of the Zenith, or the brightness of the shattered glass on which wild dancing naked women are reected in Florida Ttripp convey a dark beauty buried beneath these disquieting scenes.

The subjects of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings, the centerpieces, might be seen to convey this message on capitalism just as much as the details do, albeit in a dierent, more spiritual way. The classical style of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings as it is applied to many of their subjects (skillfully and seriously) seems to contribute, or amount, to something downright religious. Taken on their own, crack addicts, piles of trash, biker gangs, dancing naked women, sardines, and iguanas are not religious or spiritual. But by painting these subjects with such skill, and such mastery of classical and neo-classical techniques, Durgin-Barnes is able to impart mystical, immortal signicance to these martyrs of American capitalism.

For Durgin-Barnes, this mystical element comes from rock n’ roll music. Traditional harmonies and melodies (classical and neo-classical painting techniques) applied to (crude? vulgar? grotesque?) nonclassical subject matter. This rock n’ roll sensibility and passion comes across in Epithets of Integrity, Durgin-Barnes’s mistakenly dubbed ‘rst’ solo show at Treason Gallery in Seattle in

September, 2017. The show was a huge success artistically for Durgin-Barnes, opening several new platforms on which to sell his work (artsy.net/artwork/andrew-durgin-barnes/, treasongallery.com/andrewbarnes/) and garnering attention in the elusive world of art. Financially, Epithets of Integrity was lackluster at best. Durgin-Barnes only sold one work from the show, barely enough to cover his cost of living and painting for a month in New York. In an ironic way, Durgin-Barnes is as much a victim of the capitalist society to which he belongs as the drug dependent subjects of his paintings. In order to keep painting, to keep working, he has to sell his work. And after a dicult rst year in New York, he feels a temptation to turn down the amps, to tone back the rock n’ roll attitude so prevalent in his works in Epithets of Integrity. But I hope that for us, as well as for himself, Durgin-Barnes can nd a way to stay true to himself as an artist and to continue working in the capitalist society that seems to ignore him.

Charlie Masson is a painter and print maker who graces all of his inanimate subjects with a worthiness that is more easily found in the whites of the eyes of a human subject. Like many artists, he is fascinated with light. His mastery of paint and ink enable a highly sensitized use of colour and shadow that subtly personifies the most inanimate objects. Envelopes, subway tickets, rubber bands, receipts. These are the things that Masson portrays in Keepsakes, a series of oil on cardboard works. The occasional passport-booth photo with an anonymous female peeks out from underneath envelopes both institutional and personal. Masson draws our attention to the ephemeral nature of objects we use and throw away, and in doing so memorializes them as more than disposable accessories to our lives. There is a palpable sympathy for the underdog, a spotlight shone on the discarded Christmas tree lying by the curb. Masson adorns the banal with beauty, and his nostalgia for subway tickets, receipts and other signs of memorable times gone by, is both passionate and sentimental. A somewhat more somber series of work titled Rear Window appears as a love letter to the architecture that encases our lives. Mostly oil paintings depicting New York at night, Masson uses sparing shapes and a muted palette to emphasize moments of light or shadow. Windows, lampposts and rooftops are all framed as a portrait might be; either from below, close up or diagonally, almost as though Masson wanted to depict the sitter at his best angle possible. In one piece a cluster of skyscrapers sits lurking in the darkness. In another, two bright yellow traffic lights hover in mid air, quietly waiting to be noticed. The background sky is always a muddied brown or hazy blue if dawn is beckoning, reminiscent of a soft interior lighting that would never shine too harshly upon a subject. Where Keepsakes speaks to our inner child and excitedly holds on to past moments, Rear Window is decisively melancholic and asks that we turn our gaze outward to the city that houses our experience, and consider that it too, has lived with us. Just as many painters would painstakingly depict the curve of a nude hip, almost too aware of its inherent value as female body, Masson turns his attention to those famously ‘inanimate’ objects, gracing them with character. Just like dancing candelabra, or talking oysters, Masson’s yellow traffic lights suddenly seem endearing and youthful; his blue rubber band is practical and somber. Masson’s fluency in light and shadow, refined through his printmaking asks that we consider our everyday accessories as much as the curve of a nude hip.

Describe your practice using only 5 words.

scratching, layering, covering, removing, revealing

How do you work?

I work from a small studio in my home and often begin many pieces at once so I can allow the work some space, repeatedly coming back to them over a longer period of time.

Many of my works are on boards as I like the physical weight of them and the smooth surface on which to build up textures and layers. I begin by making marks consisting of lines, shapes and words to break up the composition. I work with very ordinary media such as house paint (emulsions), pencils and biro and the process of building up surfaces, scratching them away, adding more and removing more to reveal what once was, becomes cathartic.

How do you know when a piece is finished?

I’ve had pieces that have sat for months at a time whilst I try to ‘live with’ them, only to take them back into the studio and completely begin again. Sometimes when I think I’m finished its hard to trust that decision but usually once a piece appears to have reached an aesthetic balance I move it to one side or hang it, stare at it and then give it some space. I find it really tempting to overwork pieces, but this is something I am trying to move away from.

What was your most recent exhibition?

I currently have work showing at The Hive, a creative centre in the heart of Shrewsbury, Shropshire. To date The Hive has worked with over 38,000 people in various charity projects.

‘neither awake nor asleep’ brings together 12 recent works made in the last 8 months and these will be shown until the end of August.

In September I am taking part in the Secret Severn Art Trail for the second year, which is a fantastic celebration of artists and makers in Ironbridge.

How has your practice changed over time?

I have always been interested in ‘balance’, whether that be the physicality of balancing objects within a space, or balancing marks on paper or board. My earlier practice explored these issues through industrial objects, re-contextualised within a gallery or studio space. Somehow these copper pipes, breezeblocks, glass sheets and strip lighting became beautiful things and their original connotations were somewhat removed.

As well as my actual art practice, my own mindset has changed in that I am no longer concerned with trying to make artwork to please others or to fit certain criteria. I make the work purely for myself and if others like it or want to spend their money on it than that makes me feel really good!


@charlottebillingham.art on IG

R: I’m thinking about Abstraction. In some cases it’s seen as a reaction against representation, and in others its driven by process and a series of decisions.

S: The second is where I lie. That is what I do, it’s very formal and procedural. I’m just thinking about the surface, the paint, the paint as a material, as well as a subject, which includes colour. Not everyone is going to think that is enough. Some people search for more. I’m asking people really to look at the paint and the surface, and what fascinates me is to try and evoke, not a meaning, but what I do find is that when a painting does work for people they can connect it to a memory of a place, which is to me is so fascinating, because it’s a circle, nothing more. It’s only a circle and I’ve chosen 3 colours, that’s it. When the paintings work somehow people find more. People also appreciate them without finding anything more, just appreciating the shapes and the colours, and that’s also fine.

R: What jumps out at me is that in some ways they remind of emojis, or symbols, because they’re so graphic, like flags.

S: Yes! I want to talk about that. Look at the earlier building paintings. There’s a graphic quality to my work, there always have been. I’m so happy you touched on flags because I’m fascinated by them, I always memorize them when the Olympics come, because they are so sharp and they’re loaded with meaning for people as well. They’re just bands of colour and they represent so much. This painting takes colours from an African flag. I’m interested in people’s relationship to colour. People have a specific relationship to colour, even from the time they are kids, that never leaves us.

R: It’s interesting to think about Abstraction in relation to representation in this context, because symbols are different. They exist in a different theoretical space. Symbols by definition provoke bodily reactions, and you project your hopes, desires and feelings onto them.

S: That’s kind of fascinating, also applied to flags, because they have clear symbols, a circle can be a sun, for example. Perhaps that’s a direction I can take my paintings further, making my

own symbols. I’m still using stripes, but when I moved from doing stripes to circles people really attached comments to those paintings. I thought ok, I’m taking things further, it’s not just colour and stripes, I’ve moved somewhere new. It was a reaction I was really intrigued by.

R: When I look at them, I almost see a kind of personality, or character. Where does that impression come from?

S: Yeah! But also, someone else might walk right by it, have a totally different experience, it’s also just a circle.

R: So these circles are really experimental for you. Do you only work on canvas?

S: I’m interested in the sculptural quality to the painting. These here are oil paintings on panel, adding a block element to them, especially when you see them all together. I want to emphasize that more, an installation element. I’ve been moving into Formalism which gives me a great kind of freedom, that I didn’t feel with still life or portraiture.

R: Talk me through your process of making these new paintings.

S: First I look at a lot of other paintings. I also look at a lot of textiles. When I first started to do abstract work with busier patterns, I was really interested in these Gee’s Bend quilts, which seemed to have a real spontaneity to them, but I found the quilts to be equally important to looking at paintings.

R: Something related to what we’ve been talking about is that quilts were also used for messages. They were used in the Underground Railroad as maps for people to find their way along the trail. There would be arrows and secret patterns in blankets hung out on fences and laundry lines that would indicate a house was a safe place to stay.

S: They’re so loaded actually. Interesting. That brings us back to symbols. So I’ll look at these textiles and paintings, and my painting will start as an idea for a pattern and colour. There is a spontaneous element even though these are the most planned. Aside from having a picture to look at for inspiration, I really didn’t know how these were going to end up. I may have a pretty close idea of what I want to grasp. People often ask me if there is a particular emotion I want to convey or something like that and the answer is no. But I do hope that they can evoke an emotion. That’s why I don’t title them. The actual combination of colour takes a long time for me to be happy with. Some of them have plenty of layers. I want there to be a little bit more when you get up close. You can see my thought process. You can see I’ve reconsidered things, and for me that’s an important part of the painting.

It’s very satisfying for me to have an idea, an abstract picture, and just make it. It feels like freedom, “This is what I want to do, this is what I did.”

R: Can I ask you about the new sculptures you’ve been making?

S: They’re sculptures with a lot of paint on them. They have a lot to do with the paintings. They’re totally in process. I’m a painter, so when I see objects my first reaction is to paint. It’s natural for me to want to paint over them. I think aesthetically bottles are fascinating, but ultimately these are all about colour and simplicity. This reminds me of as a kid, you know those plastic toys, Fischer Price, stuff you react to when you’re really young.

R: It’s interesting to me that it’s still a similar procedure where you make pre-determined decisions. You collect the objects, choose the colour, and apply them to the form, which in some ways is the same logic as the paintings, it’s just a different base.

S: I see them as very similar. I’m not as excited about painting a bottle, which is why this not quite done, I’m just thinking about painting every-day objects, like in Pop Art.

R: This is an opportunity to segue into asking you about Jasper Johns, thinking about his painting on top of every-day objects. He also used symbols. I remember in art history my professor lecturing that Jasper Johns was gay, and that his images were all codes for speaking about his identity. Similarly for Robert Rauschenberg, although his bisexuality is referenced often despite his being married to women. In years following that lecture any time I’d come across writing about Jasper Johns I’d never see reference to his sexual identity. So all that to ask you does your being queer come into your painting? Is it inspiration or do you perceive it as separate?

S: I think it’s separate. Some days I wish I had more of an intense answer. It’s separate. Does being gay even have to come into my work now? It’s no secret. This is a sign of how much progress has been made, it’s a privilege to be able to take this position.

R: Coming back to the question of representation, if you’re not working in that theoretical space then can one even bring sexual identity into the work? Representation and identity are intrinsically linked. So if you’re working with symbols you’re actually in a space of play, putting materials and objects into play.

S: I think this is a bit of a lightbulb moment than can be pushed further.

S: I don’t know in terms of personality how it works. These paintings are me. Painting is such a profound extension of a person and their personality and the way they experience the world. Even though I’m not doing representational work somehow things all around me spark ideas. It’s difficult to describe.

R: It’s odd to be asked to take a stance and say something is or is not part of the work, separating it out.

S: Yeah, I mean, we’re absorbing, dissecting, re-creating the world around us all the time, of course it’s going to show up in the work somehow. Maybe that’s why choosing the colours is such an important part for me. I don’t know what it means, but I can’t imagine that ever ending, choosing colour as my subject matter.

R: Your practice has been talked about previously as being connected to other local histories of Abstraction like Bob Christie, William Perehudoff and Eli Bornstein, more recently Jessica Eaton’s photography, and they’re all prairie-born artists who are obsessed with light and how light creates colour. Bornstein works with paint and Eaton works with film. I’m wondering if you’re referencing the history of that aesthetic. It seems to me you’re thinking about the materiality of the paint, rather than light per se. Tell me about how you choose your colours and how it relates to the properties of the paint.

S: Oil paint is a rich medium. I’ve been painting for 17 years, I’ve been choosing colour for a long time. It’s not about what I love in a combination, it’s about, sometimes, trying out an intention. I don’t want to choose colours that are overly superficial or predictable. I want something that is more subtly confusing, like colours you might think don’t go together, or colours that look kind of just look pleasing in a surprising way. This painting here would be a good example. I don’t even know if I like these colours together, do they really go together? I don’t know, maybe not. I’m not after brightness, happiness, or a pleasing experience. I’m after something more vague, subtle. I have to tweak it all the time. I do this one day and I think it looks great, because the painting is wet, and then a couple of days later the colour is darker, it just doesn’t look as juicy, or vital, so I have to go back and find a balance that I think is not superficial.

R: It’s a play of the relationships of the colours to themselves.

S: Yes, exactly. This looks like black far away, but then you get up closer and it’s not actually black. The colour is more than what it initially appears.

R: So you’re playing with perception.

S: Absolutely. As you get up closer you also notice these details, like what I was saying about the edges, or the roughness, so it’s a new realization that makes the painting more interesting. People see paintings in different light, for example. I don’t want people to see my paintings as just blocks of colour, I think that’s fine, but I want there to be more to it.

R: It makes me think about how there’s this new technology being used to shoot x-rays into historic paintings to figure out the layers and the process of making them. It can now be done with even more detail. So conservators and art historians will digitally peel back the layers of a painting and draw inferences about the painter’s life, saying things like “Oh look this hand was over on the left, but now it’s over here, so therefore the painter must have been feeling....”


S: I watch a lot of art history shows and I really like the ones where they have to do an x-ray to figure out if a person is actually the real artist, and that’s something they discover by looking through the layers of a painting. The backs of paintings are also fascinating, saying where the painting has travelled, provenance, things like that.

R: With the benefit of hindsight now, do you have insight about what made you make your transition into Abstraction?

S: I’ve always loved shapes. A building is made up of a group of shapes. I just wanted to be free, not tied to representation, I just wanted to use line. I was working representationally after university, with all these great examples around me in Saskatoon. You see Pereheudoff’s work everywhere, I’m lucky to know Bob Christie. Art Placement shows such strong work, so it’s not like these paintings came out of nowhere. I’ve been influenced by things indirectly without even being able to articulate it. I’ll paint something that I think is finished, and then by chance I’ll see a Pereheudoff panting that is new to me, and they’ll look very similar. I think that’s so interesting. We’ve arrived at a very similar image without my having seen the original. Our work is in conversation with each other.

R: So to close, I’ve been reading a book called The Art of Prudence by Balthasar Gracian, a Spanish clergyman and moralist who wrote using a pseudonym, and he says that, “Fame was and is the sister of giants. She works through extremes. Monsters and prodigies are either abhorred or applauded.” If you were to be pursuing fame would you want to be famous for being a monster or a prodigy?

S: Oh. Well, monster doesn’t really describe me well, so prodigy, I guess. Yeah, I’d like to be applauded.

R: For prodigious technique.

S: Absolutely, yes.