Aaron Turner (b.1990) is a photographer and educator currently based in the Hudson Valley working as Technical Director in the Film and Electronic Arts Department at Bard College, also as an Adjunct Professor at Bard College at Simon's Rock. He uses photography to pursue personal stories of people of color, in two main areas of the U.S., the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas. Aaron has a strong interest in the role that documentary photography plays in both the art and journalism worlds, and the crossover this creates in contemporary photography. Aaron also uses studio photography to examine the role of the black artist, black art, and blackness as material within the art world. He received his MFA in Visual Arts from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and his MA in Visual Communication from Ohio University.
PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: Black Alchemy
2014 – present
My work explores the question of what black art is, and what a black artist is in the context of the representation of the black experience, the discourse of photography, and the ongoing radical movement for social and racial justice. I engage in abstraction as a tool to shift questions of identity within a traditional, often monolithic historical narrative. This body of work titled Black Alchemy approaches the issues of identity, racial passing, abstraction, the historical archive, and the studio, while also thinking about ideas of the black artist as subject and blackness as material.
I explore these issues through photography. The works comprise a culmination of black and white photographs composed from a large format 4x5 view camera, of constructed spaces and still lives within the studio, layering through digital imaging, and both racial and artistic passing. The photographs build a physical representation of my internal monologue about space, history, and my response to finding artifacts in the studio. The photos explore language, genealogy, DNA, and the labor of mark making in an attempt to create a personal tribal existence, -- a continuation of moves that are native to me but foreign in meaning to the viewer but recognizable in the method. Allowing the formation of my mono tribal existence in the studio and that presence becomes a reality when I put those objects out into the world. Within the abstraction of the paintings is a coded lexicon; though is personal to me, it allows the viewer to project onto the objects based on the multiplicity of their own experience(s).
When and where did Black Alchemy begin?
Black Alchemy began my first year in Rutgers MFA program. I'm sort of obsessed with the past and how things came to be within history on many different levels. And Black Alchemy came out of that. I was doing documentary work in Arkansas Delta with the intention of tracing my family history in the region and wanted to explore other means of image making, which is why I decided to pursue an MFA.
During a studio visit with a professor, I was made aware of Kerry James Marshall's work. This encounter changed my whole experience while at Rutgers. It made me think back to my time as an undergrad at the University of Memphis, I had an African American Literature class that introduced me to the book Passing by Nella Larsen. Passing was prevalent during segregation, being a black person who was able to pass for white and live a better life due to the lightness of the skin from being of mixed-race background.
Kerry James Marshall made me think of passing because one of his main reasons for painting the figures in his paintings as dark as he does and at the scale that he does, is to put a nonmarginalized black character or body in a place where you might not often see them. In a painting, on a wall in the museum where you can't miss seeing it.
Then I started reading about artists like Frank Bowling and Mel Edwards and other artists of color during the late 1960s early 1970s and issues they had with museums like the Met and the Whitney for not recognizing the black artist or including them in major shows at the time. There was a group called The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Black Artist's Correspondence protesting on black artists behalf.
So my interest in Passing, black artists, the art world, and family genealogy all started mixing together.
For me, Black Alchemy came out of the questions:
What is black art?
Is all art that black artists make considered black art?
– People were telling me it doesn't matter if you are black or not just make good art, and other telling me just the opposite.
– Looking at the black artists who did abstract work and to me were under the disguise or free of this whole issue.
I began to think about things outside of art like Sidney Poitier success in acting, Savion Glover and his perception of tap dancing, sensationalized historical images from African American history. At the same time, I had always been looking at the work of Hank Willis Thomas and how versatile it was. McArthur Binion's abstract geometric paintings how a profound impact on me as well, the fact that he used these paintings to talk about life growing up in Mississippi and his DNA. Glen Ligon was another big influence.
The other side of Black Alchemy is my love of light and geometric forms. I was also looking at the work of Eileen Quinlan, Barbara Kasten, Leslie Hewitt, Jessica Eaton, Erin O'keefe, James Henkel. Their work was everything I loved about photography outside of the fact that I am a black man making images. I love the form, light, shape, shadows, clean, straightforwardness, messiness, the happen chance, sculptural aspects of all of these artists.
I saw the power abstraction afforded me to talk about the ideas I had without being written off as a quick read: "I've seen this before" attitude.
Creating the images you see within the Black Alchemy series are just formal ideas I had. I wanted to see what xyz would look like or I already had a preconceived notion of how I wanted xyz to look. I was trying to create or wanted to develop a specific reality or world where my ideas could live, and I could share with other people. I was seeking to have conversations with people about repetition and patterns, the labor of painting, Martin Luter King, Malcolm X, Fanon, Robert Adams and abstraction all in the same conversation. I also wanted to make work with a little bit form each of those things.
My personal goal or the idea I wanted to explore was doing work that had not cultural ties to me being an artist who is black, I tried to make things that looked like anyone would make them, but at the same time I decided to make things that pointed directly to the fact that I was a black artist interested in matters related to me.
Where do you see this project going?
I see Black Alchemy continuing in similar ways ascetically, maintaining the black and white colors but adding more paintings and even video. I think subject matter will continue to change and I want to look at more historically specific events and make paintings and photographs in a very similar way that I have been.
The work is still in progress and hasn't exhibited as a whole outside of my MFA thesis exhibition. I am hoping this will change in the next year or so, that the right person, gallery, institution, or organization will see it, and our visions for displaying the work will align. Only single photographs from the series have exhibited different places.
My ideal outcome of sharing this series would be in the form of a book or several books, which is something I am slowly and methodically working on now. I would ideally like to add more paintings to the series as well as a bigger scale for more surface to explore specific ideas.
What helps you sustain your current creative practice?
Constant reading about and looking at art keeps my creative practice going. I work in spurts. I take in a lot of information over an extended period of time and take mental notes, and then I try to make informed decisions about the art I make based on that times spent.
The routine of working at a college campus is more than enough to keep me productive; I'm continually looking at works in progress from so many people at different stages of their career. It keeps you inspired and thinking about your own work.
I pay attention to anything around the sport of basketball, never played in competitively or pursued it seriously growing up but I've always enjoyed the structure and history surrounding it. I keep up with the NBA and NCAA basketball seasons and also play video games related to basketball. Sounds weird but I like to keep things playing in the background while working and highlight clips from YouTube is one of those, in addition to podcasts, tv shows, etc... I'm always looking into art, so it's nice to just do something entirely unrelated to it.
When I think about basketball in relation to art, I think about Paul Pfeiffer's work surrounding basketball and boxing.
What’s next for you?
I'm not sure what's next for me in the immediate future. I'm enjoying working with students and faculty in a full-time staff position while teaching parttime. If something with a full-time teaching opportunity presents itself that would be great, it's something I always keep in mind.
In 5 years I hope to have Photographers of Color operating as an independent sustainable platform where photographers will be able to draw resources from. I would like to travel to Japan and Italy within that time frame as well. I don't know where I'll be working. I'm open to a lot of things; teaching is something I could see myself doing for sure.
What other artists should we be keeping an eye on?
Bethany Joy Collins, Samuel Levi Jones, Trkwase Dyson, Jessica Vaughn, Demetrius Oliver, Byron Kim. These are artists that I personally look at all the time to see what they are doing, I just have a keen interest in the work they are making. There are so many photographers I could name, but I am always looking outside of photography for inspiration. Also, Sky Hopinka and Ephraim Asili, two very strong filmmakers, the way they look at the world through their films are inspirational to me and much more.