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30th Oct 2020

City Art Reader 37: Studio visit – Henry Turner

In mid September City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston visited Henry Turner’s West Melton residence and studio to discuss Turner’s new body of work for Fever! at City Art Depot.


Henry Turner’s West Melton artist studio

Cameron Ralston: Are the works about West Melton? Or is that just where they began?

Henry Turner: That was a starting point. You see, the show is a bit like a heart that operates in three spheres or rather three chambers that pulse through one another. So, to think metaphysically – I seem to spend half my life disappearing down metaphysical rabbit-holes at the moment – the work in the show operates on three levels.

The first, plants, is a matter of incidental interest, I’m not particularly interested in plants except in my private life, which is not the same as this show. The idea in the work dates from an experience about 7 or 8 years ago when I had a big operation in Dunedin. I was given a great deal of methadone, for the best part of two months, and I then caught cold turkey in the height of summer. Summer on the Canterbury Plains was having endless blue skies every day, hot as hell. It was like being trapped under a ’70s salad-bowl. It was a process of total breakdown and a measured dose of despair. I became majorly allergic to the Plains’ endless horizon and endless baked sky, baked earth and the heat. Also, because of the blue skies, I’ve not used blue in a painting since. I have no blue anywhere.

Another major part of my despair at the time was the ecological devastation. The Plains had been wiped clean of all native vegetation except in a few crumbs. This majorly contributed to my methadone fueled howling grief. So, in the show I decided to turn the Plains from despair ground-zero to a land of milk and honey. Making sense of, and reconciling, it. All that is the first level.

The second level is emotional. Each of the paintings work on an emotional level. There is excitement, terror, grief and general contentedness with a whole lot of other things. Depending on what I was doing at the time, various experiences have finished up in there.

And the third is conceptual and figurative and the interfacing between them. It is my conviction that elements of conceptual and figurative work can exist and pollinate one another.

So, these are the three ways in which the show operates, and there are 30 paintings in the body of work. I’ve always been attracted to one and threes, not twos. I only learned a few years ago at University from Richard Bullen that in Japanese gardening they are allergic to twos. When designing Zen gardens you can have one rock, you can have three rocks, but never two. This made a lot of sense and I’ve been adhering to it ever since.

‘I Long and Seek After’, Henry Turner, gouache on gesso panel (framed), 585x470mm, 2020

So, these are works that are looking back? Are you still confronted by the sky and issues of destruction of native vegetation across the Plains?

Sometimes. This show has helped immeasurably so in that sense this is exactly what the shrink would have recommended. As to looking backwards and looking forwards, in terms of the plants it looks back. But it’s amazingly beautiful. The population at large treats it with a mixture of indifference laced with destructive contempt, but the landscape is of immense importance on every level. There are markers of human experience within the everyday world – often buildings, but of course also trees and flowers. To me, the most potent marker of this kind are the native plants. The show is to all intents and purposes the charting of powerful obsession. In that sense it’s looking back, but in a personal sense it’s looking forward. The show is a Flucht nach vorne, as the Germans say – an escape forwards, or a retreat backwards… I don’t look back in my practice. Once I finish something, I don’t think about it anymore, it’s always the next thing. It does both really – an escape towards something.

In addition to looking backwards and forwards, it’s a bit like Janus the two-faced god who looks after beginnings and the going-through. Actually, it’s like Lucifer, trapped in the bottom-most layer of hell frozen up to his chest in a frozen lake with three faces, one black, one yellow and one white, all of them screaming – so that’s me at the bottom of my own little world.

Are those plants that are in the works all native? And are you painting from real landscapes in this area?

The work is not about plants. Yes, those plants are there, they’re just very rare and very difficult to notice. There are the plants but there’s also a small range of symbolism which I have employed which you might not necessarily find on the land, like glass spheres and eggs which are just as important.

At the conceptual level the paintings are interchangeable with glass spheres. In fact, at some point I really want to do exactly the same show, also called Fever, in the same gallery, same everything but instead of paintings there would be glass spheres that say exactly the same things, I’d see exactly the same things.

The flora and fauna bits are totally incidental, I cannot emphasise this strongly enough. The show is not about plants and not about insects, it’s about emotions and the conceptual and figurative.

‘Nights of Gold and Flowers’, Henry Turner, gouache on gesso panel (framed), 585x470mm, 2020

Are you looking to elicit an emotional response from the viewer? Or is the exhibition more to do with you translating your emotions?

One of the things I like about conceptualism is that the audience can look at it and think whatever they want. If you’ve got a devotional painting, you’re supposed to feel devotion for example. But conceptualism is totally blank, any response is valid. So, the audience can think whatever they want. I can tell them what I want, they can read the Reader, they can read the book, but I am the custodian of the images – that’s my role in the thing. The audience can with perfect justice conclude that I’m mad. The show does chart obsessions, I mean what sane person does this?

Do you think your obsessiveness is also relevant to the way in which you paint – the way you apply paint to the panels or the amount of work you produce?

Yes, there is a lapidary note to it. What someone makes is one thing, the way in which it’s made is another. Painting is wonderfully flexible, I love the way you can do anything, the possibilities are boundless. It’s like that too with sculpture, and photography too to an extent. I’m going to do sculpture that’s for sure, but for now it’s painting.

Are you perhaps most trained or experienced in painting though?

I’m not trained in anything really. To do something yourself and be taught something often happens in tandem but often results depend on the ratio. I did art at school. In fact, I didn’t do much else, I think I was the most awful student, I ignored everything and just did whatever I pleased. I still do whatever I please. One of the changes in my practice in the last few years is recognising pure obsessive stubbornness and now I’ve enshrined it as a principle, that of the iron whim.

There are strict rules in this show but after this show I’m throwing the rule book out the window and I’m going to follow the iron whim. You can visualise something in a second and you can sit staring into space while everyone else thinks you’re a bit touched in the head while you’re working out everything to the last detail, but then you’ve actually got to do it and you’ve got do whatever is necessary to see it gets physically made. That’s the difficult thing and what you spend all day doing.

What was the rule book for this show?

I went out for dinner with some friends and when I was coming back home, about ten minutes later I started thinking ‘plains and fragrant flowers as a starting point…’ By the time I got home I had a proposal and knew exactly what I was going to do. I knew more or less the place I was going to go and how I would do it, then it was just the question of making it happen which I’ve been doing ever since.

Did it come to you fully formed?

Not quite fully but it happened very fast. When you’re in a good place the brain works very fast. In fact, lots of things go very fast.

You’ve certainly produced them with a great ferocity.

Ferocity is important, if you’re not ferocious it’s not necessarily going to happen. You need to keep hammering away at it. I find the idea of art to be a bit problematic, I’m a bit suspicious now and then. Because to me art is not art; art is work. The work is much stronger than the artiness. Artiness is just the way my brain was cast, the rest is just work.

Works by Henry Turner

You produced a book to accompany Deep Gold, your 2019 exhibition at City Art Depot, and are producing another here. Do you see the books as essential to the bodies of work?

The relationship between my practice and books is of enormous importance. I am trying to build as large a library of as good a quality as I can. But there is so much that I want that I can’t get, which is one aspect. Also, I love art books. By which I mean smaller edition high production books which I adore and collect as much as I can. I love immersing myself in it and I love doing books. They’re hell to make and they cost a bomb and never sell more than a handful. But they’re good to make – they’re something that you know is good. You can also explore things much more fully in a book. You can also put writing and graphics in a book which explain what one’s practice is about very effectively. If someone actually wants to find out they can in a way exactly as I wish, I’m the puppet master – I can dictate exactly what they know and what they don’t know. Getting the right information across, without wanting to sound puritanical and inquisitorial, is important. It’s so easy to get the wrong idea about something or to think something is important which isn’t. I mean I want to make books until I die, I want to make a whole library full of books on all manner of things.

The show is titled Fever!, is this in reference to the feverishness you experienced?

The title Fever! is purely abstract. If I wanted to convey these ideas by doing a futuristic city with pearly skies and rainbows I would do that, if I wanted to do images of outer space, black holes and the cosmos I would do that, if I wanted to do it with paintings of people I would do that. I just decided in the spur of the moment to do plants because they seemed like a good place to start, a nice place to put the lever.

I decided to call the show Fever! because I really like the song Fever, which I first heard by Janice Gray but was most famously abroad, rightly or wrongly, by Peggy Lee. I have major difficulty naming things. I don’t want to sound pretentious or too simplistic. In the past I’ve normally resorted to naming works and shows after songs or music. So, to call the show after another song makes perfect sense.

The titles of the works in this show come from poetry though?

There’s thirty works and I’m rapidly using up my repertoire of songs. In fact, I’ve mostly got through it already until I can find something else – there’s very little music I like. I found a fantastic new translation of Sappho the archaic Greek poet. When you think Sappho, you might think of the more recent connotations. But I’m interested in Sappho for her descriptions of the sun, moon, trees, flowers, music, cloth and incense. I also love Poliziano.

What is it in Sappho’s writing that connected with you?

Sappho was around in the archaic period; a tiny bit has survived. Writers after Sappho quoted her, and fragments of those texts survived. Now and then there is even a fragment of a quote from Sappho. In this new translation there are just lines or a couple of works, there are a handful of paragraphs but there’s very little of it. Such as, ‘Golder than gold’ or ‘breezes like honey are flowing’. I was entirely shocked when I first read them, they’re so very evocative. She seemed to be writing towards a place I was working towards too. The idea of naming the paintings after these strings of sweet words made perfect sense.

‘Breezes like Honey are Flowing’, Henry Turner, gouache on gesso panel (framed), 585x470mm, 2020

Do you see the poetics in your own work?

Increasingly. There is a lot of literature in this work. In the last show there was none, except for what I wrote and what I wrote was pretty crazy. But this show has been strongly influenced by a whole array of writers. Mostly Jorge Luis Borges, Georg Büchner and Sappho.

What draws you to those writers?

I’m quite fragmentary and idiosyncratic. It’s mainly freak chance. Borges wrote a story called Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius which was a major flash of light, a revelatory experience to read the thing. This led to his ouevre which is pleasure for a lifetime. A fairy tale in one of Büchner’s plays has been hugely influential as well. In much the same way as music. Sappho’s words would have been one with music which also fascinates me.

I started out free of all influences. Things sometimes come along afterwards and I’ve been very lucky that there have been several in this show. Sometimes it’s retroactive, accessories after the fact. It’s a bit back to front but also has to do with looking forwards and looking backwards. I’m not always sure which way is up.

In our conversation around your previous exhibition Deep Gold we talked about the frames and the works coming together to create a completed whole. Is this still the case with these pieces?

I’m exploring the idea of the frames in sort of the same way as I’m exploring the idea of the book. Finding new ways of doing things. The idea of the painting and the frame being one is not specific to any one show.

What are you exploring with them here?

It’s not absolutely settled yet. The actual physicalness of doing the painting is quite difficult. It takes a large amount of time to do any work on the frames. It’s a lot of working things out and solving problems and attempting to work out the shape of the problem.

‘Is My Crazy Heart’, Henry Turner, gouache on gesso panel (framed), 585x470mm, 2020

There’s certainly a lot work involved in the show. How do you balance that with your University studies in classics?

It’s a mounting crisis! I use an occupational drug.

Coffee and no sleep?

Yes – and not much. These days I work until I can’t work anymore.

You’re working in this studio space at night then?

I’m trying to wrestle my sleeping patterns into a more sensible shape but I worked until nearly three in the morning last night. Witching hours can be astonishingly productive. When you get to a certain level at night the tiredness and onset of exhaustion brings about a sort of sudden clarity in the thought processes. A lot of the time I can work all day on something and then I’ll sit there, or walk about, listening to music and think with this wonderful clarity. With gouache, because it’s detailed, you need clarity before you begin. With this clarity I can do drawings for what I’m going to do the next day.

I also go for long walks, especially early on in the work for this show. These 20–25km walks going quite fast towards the Waimakariri River – this is where a lot of the stuff in the show grows. The walking creates a different kind of clarity. At night you get a golden clarity but when on the hoof the energy of the mind is bottled up and that produces a silvery clarity. It’s just my way of differentiating them because there are different thought processes going on.

I see on the wall here you’re working on maps. What are these depicting other than the West Melton area?

They are literal maps and figurative maps of where this show is and where I am. The obsession with the physical characteristics of the area is temporary in my practice, but while it’s on so to speak I’ll push it as far as it will go. So, the entire show can be found in this area. I decided to do it like cut stone in a Cosmati pavement because when you fly into Christchurch and you see the river channels it looks like marble. A yellow and ochre marble. I’ve also developed a boundless obsession with the drainage system in the Pantheon in Rome. The oculus in the top has a huge hole and when it rains it pours onto the floor. So the floor is slightly tilted to flow into fantastic drainage holes like bronze butterflies let into the floor. Here with the braided river the rain falls straight into the aquifer, underground its essentially a huge drainage system increasingly laced with toxic sludge. So, it looks like marble and does the same thing as the Pantheon floor and so from this thought to doing maps of the Canterbury Plains as a pavement is but the shortest of steps. Thus one of the maps, the others have different modi operandi.

It’s a fascinating way of coming at map making.

I’m basically a novice in all things so I have to learn as I go. It’s necessary to be flexible, and I adore maps, I’ve always made them but I’ve not shown them before.

There’s an element of freshness in coming at something with no prior experience.

True, but it’s not good for the blood pressure. You’ve got to have faith. With this show especially it comes from having faith in what I’m doing because if I don’t then nobody else will. This work that I’m doing, I am heart and soul involved in and it is everything. I’ve got to have that sort of faith to lean on. It hurts to fall over…

‘The Moon is Up’, Henry Turner, gouache on gesso panel (framed), 585x470mm, 2020