Daniel Turner / Man is a god in ruins

An essay by James Michael Schaeffer.

The following essay is not an attempt to define my own version of the sublime, but rather apply other writers’ postulations on the subject to the artwork of Daniel Adam Turner. Man is a god in ruins, words by James Michael Schaeffer.

In the early 19th century, as early American citizens set out to survey their newly independent nation, they were often overwhelmed by the enormity of the West’s virgin landscape. Unaccustomed to a terrain devoid of history and absent of the familiarities of Europe, these explorers had difficulty returning to the east with sufficient descriptions of their travels. This astonishment for the untouched country is delineated in William Clark’s journal after arriving at the Great Falls of the Missouri River in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains: “After wrighting this imperfect description I… wished for the pencil of Salvator Rosa or pen of Thompson that I might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnificent and sublimely grand object.” Shortly thereafter, many American painters would venture towards the Pacific coast to illustrate what very few white men had seen. Inspired by the written accounts of Lewis and Clark, 24 year-old Thomas Cole took a steamship on the Hudson in the autumn of 1825 to paint the scenery of upstate New York. Borrowing from the aesthetics of painters like JMW Turner and Homer Winslow, Cole’s renderings of the Catskill Mountains are accredited for instigating the American academy of the Hudson River School. These artists illustrated the ideals of Manifest Destiny by depicting the transcendental sublimity of the environment through the vista of pictorial arts.

Few painters had more influence on the Hudson River School both aesthetically and conceptually than German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Believing that an artist should not only depict what is before him but also what he sees within himself, Friedrich attempted to disclose the sublime as defined by Enlightenment philosophers. The most prevalent theories of the sublime at the time that Friedrich would have found inspiration for his work was defined by another German: Immanuel Kant. Kant posited that the feeling of sublimity was at first the inadequacy to attain reason when confronted with the overwhelmingly exalted, than the simultaneous pleasure arising from the self’s awareness of one’s conscious paucity. When man is faced with “threatening rocks, thunder-clouds piled on the vaulted heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction” he is at first without the ability to fathom his observances, and later appreciates this incompetence. This apprehension of sublimity was showcased in Friedrich’s painting The Wreck of Hope, which depicts a blanket of ice in the Arctic ocean ruptured by a shipwreck. Here the dismay of a naval tragedy is framed by the terrific landscape of the North Pole displaying nature’s supremacy over man. Friedrich’ s studies of the sublime would be brought into discourse again in 1961 when Robert Rosenblum compared paintings by both him and Turner to the works of Mark Rothko. This analogy to the Romantic painters ushered the sublime into contemporary dialogues.

The most important link between these 19th century artists and Abstract Expressionists like Rothko and Barnett Newman was the idea of the surveyor. In paintings by Friedrich he would often display a single onlooker from behind overseeing the awesome panorama beyond. This featureless “anyman” was the metaphorical viewer that allowed exhibition goers to posit themselves into the shoes of the awestricken character. Mid-century abstractionists brought the witness out of the painting and allotted this role to the participating audience. Specifically, Newman’s 1950 giant Vir Heroicus Sublimis sought to inspire feelings of the sublime in those who stood before it’s overwhelming red canvas. Although many initially observe the work from a safe distance, Newman intended precisely the opposite. He, like Rothko, wished that their works be examined from a short range with the idea that this would force the viewer into the same position as the character in paintings like Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. A decade later, land artists Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria followed suit by reinvestigating the American west. Consenting to the uninhabited terrain to frame their works, these artists exhibited the sublime at the edge of the Occidental frontier.

The sublime was again reconsidered after the events of 9/11. Following this national catastrophe America’s hubris was broken, destroyed and seared. It’s vanity that was once defined by opportunity and expansion was overshadowed by images of the dolmens built from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Resembling the debris of ice in The Wreck of Hope, the shell of infrastructure at Ground Zero now haunts a generation that found its maturity in the birth of global anxiety. Writings discussing the exalted have since been resurfaced by interlocutors like Boris Groys and Slavoj Žižek, carrying the millennia-old colloquy to artistic conversations. While built on the American antecedent of advancing into the unknown, the impending threat from a faceless enemy extends this narrative further into the terrifying and horrendous. The contemporary American citizen is Friedrich’s surveyor witnessing an unwelcoming global climate before him. It is appropriate now that we examine the artwork of Daniel Adam Turner, an artist who portrays this distress by creating effigies to the American sublime.

Daniel Adam Turner’s studio is buried deep in New York City. After meeting him in Greenpoint he led me to a warehouse hidden behind an overpass heading towards Manhattan. After going through rusted gates and navigating around a dilapidated workroom we finally enter his studio in the back of the property. His studio is glaring. Bright fluorescents illuminate the scratched white walls that he claims were recently painted. After my eyes adjust I can see that with the exception of a single work of Plexiglas leaning against the wall, the studio only houses a coffee table and a workbench cluttered with tools. This sort of set up wouldn’t surprise a viewer familiar with Turner’s work, whose website shows his art documented in such a way: dirty and burnt debitage exhibited in an untainted white cube. After briefly explaining to me what he’s working on currently we sit down and we begin to discuss his work. Not surprisingly he is discreet, yet talks about his work intelligently and without any pretention. On the workbench he points to an old photograph of high school work hanging in Virginia Beach, near where he was raised. The picture shows several large, rectangular, dark paintings resembling Rothko’s lesser-known “Black Paintings” hung in a local museum. Although the decade old photo is grainy and crinkled what I can make out is how much these canvases communicate with the work by the Turner I do know. My assumptions are confirmed when he reveals that these sable compositions were reappropriated in a later work where he revisited his adolescent creations and destroyed them on his family farm in 2006.

The piece in question was Burning Entire Body of Work, where he made a pyre out of 35 paintings he created in the past. This artwork, for Turner, was a chance to reinvent himself and transition his oeuvre into what it has become today. Not only was he literally destroying his past work – which a few artists have done in the past[1] – Turner was also foreshadowing the blackened and charred aesthetic he is now known for. By demolishing his own paintings Turner manifests the Nietzschean concept that creation and destruction are “two sides of one coin” and are reliant on each other to exist. Additionally, this act of self-vandalism appears to be a therapeutic piece for an American artist at the turn of the 21st century; inasmuch as it is a burning effigy for a diminishing global dominance that depleted after September 11th. In fact it is hard not to view documentation of this performance and not be reminded of the dolmens of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero. It is as if Turner is trying to tell the audience that the sublime that once could be found in an abstract painting is archaic after such a traumatic experience. Thus the sublime for Turner is not with the intrinsic power of a work but rather expressed through exhibiting the destruction of a material, consequently displaying the terror of the extrinsic world in the gallery. This reflects Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime, who believed the sublime experience took place when one escapes danger or observes the sublime from a safe distance. Here Turner’s destruction of materials is simulacrum for the actual danger of terrorism in the real world as well as a dystopic portrait of contemporary American life.

Whether he’s covered Plexiglas with soot*, burned clear plastic vinyl and stretched it on a wooden frame*, or dropped a long fluorescent light bulb from the ceiling creating a long path of broken glass*, Daniel Adam Turner’s work often appears to have been an experiment with material gone array. These vandalized objects appear both monstrous and pathetic at the same time. One recalls Gustav Metzger and the concept of Auto-Destructive Art. Metzger, who became well known for destroying canvases with hydrochloric acid in the late fifties, championed a way of making art that he believed was “a total unity of idea, site, form, colour, method, and timing of the disintegrative process.” A political activist who fervently opposed war, he championed artists like Jean Tinguely whose work was noted for its emphasis on entropy and the ephemeral. Metzger would also write poetic essays detailing the aims of the Auto-Destructive Art movement such as:

Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected.

Auto-destructive art demonstrates man’s power to accelerate disintegrative processes of nature and to order them.

In 1966 Metzger organized the Destruction in Art Symposium in London to discuss the “element of destruction in Happenings and other art forms”. Among those in attendance included Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl and Fluxus artist Yoko Ono. Metzger’s decree of destruction as creation, however, was not secluded to the plastic arts. Pete Townshend, guitarist for The Who and former student of Metzger’s, accredited his infamous smashing of his guitar at the Railway Hotel in 1964 to the Auto-Destructive movement. This act of demolishing ones instrument at the end of gigs instigated a trend of self-destruction in rock and roll, particularly with the punk movement. This visual form of self-immolation is the basis for our societies marriage of punk and ruination. As a result when artists like Urs Fischer dig craters in an art gallery critics are quick to label their work as “punk” due to the architecturally violent nature of their works. When looking at Turner’s work, however, we do not see aggression but rather pathos. The tragic objects of his oeuvre seem to be hidden articles of ones past their trying to forget. The distressed surfaces of his work are not from hostility but rather desolation.

The most important link between these 19th century artists and Abstract Expressionists like Rothko and Barnett Newman was the idea of the surveyor. In paintings by Friedrich he would often display a single onlooker from behind overseeing the awesome panorama beyond. This featureless “anyman” was the metaphorical viewer that allowed exhibition goers to posit themselves into the shoes of the awestricken character. Mid-century abstractionists brought the witness out of the painting and allotted this role to the participating audience. Specifically, Newman’s 1950 giant Vir Heroicus Sublimis sought to inspire feelings of the sublime in those who stood before it’s overwhelming red canvas. Although many initially observe the work from a safe distance, Newman intended precisely the opposite. He, like Rothko, wished that their works be examined from a short range with the idea that this would force the viewer into the same position as the character in paintings like Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. A decade later, land artists Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria followed suit by reinvestigating the American west. Consenting to the uninhabited terrain to frame their works, these artists exhibited the sublime at the edge of the Occidental frontier.

The sublime was again reconsidered after the events of 9/11. Following this national catastrophe America’s hubris was broken, destroyed and seared. It’s vanity that was once defined by opportunity and expansion was overshadowed by images of the dolmens built from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Resembling the debris of ice in The Wreck of Hope, the shell of infrastructure at Ground Zero now haunts a generation that found its maturity in the birth of global anxiety.

Writings discussing the exalted have since been resurfaced by interlocutors like Boris Groys and Slavoj Žižek, carrying the millennia-old colloquy to artistic conversations. While built on the American antecedent of advancing into the unknown, the impending threat from a faceless enemy extends this narrative further into the terrifying and horrendous. The contemporary American citizen is Friedrich’s surveyor witnessing an unwelcoming global climate before him. It is appropriate now that we examine the artwork of Daniel Adam Turner, an artist who portrays this distress by creating effigies to the American sublime.

Turner’s works may have been created through hostile actions however the feelings they evoke are anything but. They appear as if they are neglected objects in an alleyway, whose distressed surface has come from years of veiled decay. Embodying the temporal and profane objects from an ignored world, when displaced in a gallery these works suddenly realize a spiritual aura. Because of their naturalism, to rephrase Tony Smith, these pieces behave less as sculptures and more as presences. Turner also shifts his attention from the abandoned artifact to its deteriorating surroundings. For one untitled work at Martos Gallery in the summer of 2011 he rusted the galleries floors producing tarnished sienna discolor along a wall. The ground of the gallery then mimicked the deserted floors of a warehouse turned a corroded mahogany after years of vacancy. Correspondingly while at a residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) in 2010 Turner transformed his studio into an abused studio apartment. Complete with beige cabinets, a sink dripping liquid iodine, chipped tile floors, and a carefully scratched wall the studio resembled less an artist’s atelier and more a forsaken apartment after a horrible disaster. Both of these installations, however, did not provoke the exhibition viewer with crass hostility, but rather the piteousness of a downtrodden Charlie Brown in tattered clothes.

Turner’s installation at LMCC, entitled PM, was one of the first instances of his “wall rubbings”. Having now been installed in White Columns in NYC, the Anderson Art Gallery in Richmond, Virginia and a myriad other places these have become a staple of his work. Created by rubbing a piece of steel wool strategically on a gallery’s wall, these pieces are partially a response to Turner’s time spent as a security guard at the New Museum where he was instructed not lean on the wall. These bruises recall the scuffs and marks found on the minimal objects of Sterling Ruby as well as Richard Serra’s performances where he would throw molten lead at a gallery’s walls. Pieces like these invite the spectator to examine the atmosphere encompassing the artwork, as well as highlight Ellsworth Kelley’s interest in “the texture of a rock, but in it’s shadow.”

This theme of combining polarized ideals of cleanliness and detritus isn’t new, however Turner has allowed this style to define his practice thus bringing it into a new frame of reference in the 21st century. Where destruction within the white cube in the 1960’s was seen as a way to rebel against the artistic bourgeois and challenge the very definition of art, Turner is a portraitist for a world easily frightened. His work interacts with viewers not through hostility but through tragedy and nostalgia for the idyll. It is in this way that it is sublime: it showcases not only the very danger that defines our society but also portrays the humility of man’s own existence. His works remind us of our frivolous nature, as well as our ephemeral time on earth. Since our illusions of security were destroyed in such a significant way ten years ago, work meant to inspire an exalted feeling inside of us through means of size and grandeur may not have the same affect as it used to. Instead one only needs to display the wreckage and debris of a former greatness and exhibit Ralph Waldo Emerson’s decree that “man is a god in ruins”.

[1] While the history of defacement and iconoclasm is rich, Turner’s work communicates more directly with John Baldessari’s Cremation Project of the early 70’s. Here Baldessari took all of his paintings from 1953 to 1966 and ritualistically burned them. Afterwards he saved the ashes of these artworks and from them baked cookies and placed them in an urn accompanied with a plaque showing the “birth and death” dates of the works. Similarly, Man Ray’s 1923 work Object to be Destroyed was created with the premeditated intention that it would one day be destroyed, which it inevitably was in 1957 by a group of French student protestors who called themselves ‘Jarivistes’.

* Sooting Plexiglas, 2007

* Untitled 5150, bitumen emulsion, camphophenique, transparent vinyl, wood, 17″ x 15″ x 2″ (unique) 2006-2011

* Mercury Release, dropped fluorescent tube from gallery fixture, dimensions variable, 2010

* Pierre Marteau was a fictional author invented by Dutch publishing houses during the Enlightenment and was used as an imprint for books published anonymously as early as 1660. More than three hundred books written by several different writers were published under him. Most publications were anti-French and anti-Catholic as well as experimental, as if the authors were trying to write in the new fictional style we now call the novel. Often times the sexual practices of young nuns and Jesuit priests were described in detail, as well as the French aristocracy, specifically Louis XIV and his numerous affairs.

* German Expressionist painter Kirchner did not want to rely on other critics to praise his work and wanted to make sure his are was understood properly. As a result he created the imaginary critic Louis de Marsalle who wrote glowing reviews on his work.

Daniel Turner

Artworks by Daniel Turner

Essay by James Michael Schaeffer

Published on Nasty Magazine / Concrete issue

You may also like

Tightrope Walking

A talk with Haegue Yang about her first Italian solo show “Tightrope Walking and Its Wordless Shadow” on view at La Triennale di Milano. Interview by Angelica Moschin.

Road to M'era Luna 2018

The shadows look darker where the Moon shines brighter. This summer we will be following its trails again. M'era Luna Festival takes place in the middle of August in Hildesheim, Germany...
Nasty Magazine - The dusky side of Arts & Fashion - © All rights reserved - www.nastymagazine.com