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Allen Furlong and Karen Turnbull
The reason for Alien Furlong's and Karen Turnbull's joint exhibition must surely have been to take advantage of the stark juxtapositions which resulted. Furlong's works are Minimalist, combining painting and assemblage. His media include canvas, balsa, plywood and acrylic paint. Turnbull's work consists of enormous graphite drawings of a dog, a fish, and a shell. Her work is realist, although these 'portraits' call for more than a realist interpretation and/or viewing. The very disparate nature of the works can be apprehended in the initial simplicity of describing Turnbull's work as opposed to the description of Furlong's. The works' titles underline this difference, Furlong 's Hate is a sandpaper ice cube... as opposed to Turnbull 's Weimaraner (sic) for instance.
There is a strange twisting or swapping of functions in looking at the works side by side. What Furlong's works claim to represent is evidenced in their titles; California Suite, Decline of New, Some Construct and even not titled. At the same time the works are far removed from the familiar form of claims to represent and from any concept of appearance. We expect nameable objects to be represented yet the works are highly reductive, stripped bare of easily identifiable or describable objects from external 'reality'. Turnbull 's titles on the other hand act to refer; this is a Weimaraner Dog, this a Red Oranda Fish, this an Oriental Spiral Shell. Yet she presents these things as real objects eliding the process through which she has brought them to our attention, her art. We have the sense that these are snap shots from a childhood collection of pets and shells. Portraiture makes one of the strongest claims to the Essential Copy that the realist tradition pursues. These drawings make the claim to copy and at the same time mock the copyist
What does hanging these works together achieve? Do these very different approaches act to define each other? They have limited success on this count but they do persuasively demonstrate concepts of visuality. To look from one to the other is to have to adjust our vision. We cannot look at these very different images in the same way. With Turnbull's realist works we again readjust our vision suspecting or hoping that because of the juxtapositions there is more going on here then the straightforward representation of dogs, fish and shells.
Of the two artist's work Turnbull's is the first to benefit from the juxtapositions set up very directly in the hanging of the exhibition. Her over-scaled insistently rendered graphite drawings are made to appear lavish, full of discursive possibilities beside the starkly minimal works of Furlong. It is easy to imagine Turnbull laughing at this description of richness and deliberation, as a strong sense of parody is evident in her work in relation to the subjects she chooses and her unlikely portraiture approach.
It is the idea of these drawings as portraits that is most interesting. Can a drawing of a dog, a fish, be a portrait? If so, do these transfer their status to the inanimate shell? But we remember that shells are not inanimate so long as they have things living in them. Does this one? Already we feel a little foolish to have pursued this string of questions about the status of these creatures or things. That alone is enough to interest me in Turnbull 's work, but there is a little more I think. Why are these drawings portraits? The gaze of the dog and fish and the status of dog, fish and shell as single absolute subjects make them so. The Weimaraner and Red Oranda look out from the images, directly meeting our gaze just as Dorothy Hewitt looks out of her portrait by Geoffrey Proud. The Red Oranda is no less defiant than Ms Hewitt. They are all sitting subjects, if not commissioning clients. As suggested earlier the shell is part of the trio through association and similarity with the style of the other two works. It too is an honorary portrait: a representation willed by the artist not the sitter. Once the gaze of fish and dogs would not have constituted a portrait but now we are able to contemplate the new style of construction of these new subjects using tools once reserved for traditional portraiture.
The dog, fish and shell are devoid of any background, their dominance as subjects is underlined in this way. They are drawn on unadorned white sheets of paper, their greys and blacks float out from the page. They are the only elements of the image, all eyes are on them. Traditional portraiture would give us glimpses of the artifacts of the personality, a book lined study, a glass of wine, a loud tie. True realism provides excessive detail of place and time. It persuades through over informing, supplying information beyond the focus of the work that through its naturalness or familiarity beguiles the viewer, convincing him/her of its innocence and therefore claiming truth for all the image. These drawings are bare of such detail and declare the subjects as simply being, no bone for the dog, no tank for the fish, no niche for the shell. Plausible backgrounds would have allowed them to come much closer to the realist ideal but this has been avoided.
The scale of these works allows the portraits to force themselves on the viewer to the point of oppression. The square format (150 x 150 cm) adds to this effect. They are too big for us to relax with. We can see every pencil line, the build up of dense black with graphite, the force or gentleness of its application. We can see the mistakes. All this is the trace of the representation which denies the copy essential to realism.
The imprecision of the drawings in places also acts to undo the claim to realism. The Weimaraner's teeth look ready to topple from his mouth (gender brings us closer to portrait status); the fish, its eyes (ever genderless. the fish is harder to accept as portrait than the dog) bulging characteristically, realistically, lacks the symmetry for which fish can be relied on; the shell we now suspect is drawn as 'a' shell and not 'this' shell, liberties have been taken. None of this is to suggest criticism of the works on these counts. On the contrary, these irregularities or inconsistencies with the canon of realism provide a focus for response to the drawings.
In comparison Alien Furlong's work is extremely reductive. He refuses detail in favour of a Conceptual Minimalism which provides few immediately obvious discursive possibilities. The works aim to claim the status of autonomous objects. They deliberately deny the ready response which arises from Turnbull's drawings. These are difficult works. As with other examples of Minimalism, we search for a point at which to access the work but find that its edges are so smooth, so free of fissures as to deny us easy entry.
Furlong's interest and involvement in design is evident. Line and proportion are played out in ways that assert a naturalism based on the familiarity of scale of the things we live with; doors, records, compact disks. This device is not necessarily evident but dimensional biases have informed the exhibition and individual pieces therein. The wedges of Furlong 's Decline of New (each the size of a record cover) fit into any one of Turnbull 's drawings. Hate is a sand paper ice cube ... is made up of numerous cube-like boxes, their outer surfaces all the size of a C. D. The untitled piece is built around a door sized piece of ply. This is an attempt to find formulas of scale and proportion which will supply a sense of correctness to the works, some memory of experience which will make them look right.
To begin his works Furlong chooses disparate images from popular culture (principally magazines and television) and reduces their elements to the point that they can become an homogeneous whole. He aims to obscure his varied sources through this reductive process and at the same time illustrate that the signs of our culture have definite parameters to their origins and destinations. He speaks of reducing things to their essence and for him that essence has elements of a manipulative social structure at its base at the same time as a fundamental 'spirituality' which is capable of overriding this.
California Suite, an acrylic on canvas triptych, is of interest in the way that it establishes a strong sense of place. Each canvas has a deictic role which informs the narrative of the three. This is achieved using so little, giving us few clues. The top canvas shows an 'horizon' made up of black and white flat planes; the middle canvas is covered with even yellow and white stripes (a reduction of the Georgia perfume packaging); the bottom canvas, predominantly white, has a black square resting on its lower central edge. The title confirms what the stripes first signify, this is America, or any consumerist society. The first and last canvases are like intersecting axes, a place, an object or way of life in that place, and the middle canvas offers detail of the nature of the two.
Furlong would have it that his work reflects a perceived return to a sense of 'spirituality' and the 'essential' rather than actually claiming to be these things. He actively notices the development of trends in visuality and sees his use of essential forms, lines and pure colour as being a means of documenting a trend back to the contemplation of the single image, away from the eclectic canvases that have helped mark the ground of postmodernism.
This exhibition raised many questions about the nature of viewing, reference and representation. Hanging Furlong 's and Turnbull 's works together was an attempt to force questions and to answer many of them at the same time, but the complexity of the subject is such that neither artist could do so. Furthermore the manners of looking that are involved in viewing these works are so different as to accentuate our confused visual culture rather than to elucidate it. The calibre of the questions raised remains the strength of the exhibition.