By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, OCTOBER 2021
The artistry of Daniel Turner has always combined the literal, almost scientifically calibrated materiality of his sculptures with the evanescence of stories, or narratives of origin. I use the word “materiality” here with a certain reluctance, but it seems appropriate in relation to Turner’s current exhibition at the Maria Leuff Foundation. There’s something so obvious, yet emotionally pointed, about the three works on view—one of which leans menacingly against the gallery wall, composed of cardboard soaked in kerosene, as though waiting for an unsuspecting, late night security guard to light a cigarette and set it off. The other two works are less heavy-handed, but equally menacing. Double Blind / Mercury Release is a dispersion of fragments of fluorescent tubing dropped from the gallery ceiling. The point of this piece (or one of them) is to release trace amounts of mercury into the air. How long these noxious particles remain in air I have no idea. Meanwhile, a piece titled 20/20 is permanently inserted into the gallery's floor. Easily overlooked, it raises a multitude of questions when finally encountered in its own right. What is the nature of permanence in relation to the contingency of architecture? Is this artistic statement modest or grandiose? And of what importance is the workaday sensibility of minimalism within an art world otherwise given over to commentary on events squarely locked into the topicality of a socially mediated news cycle?
Like his minimalist forebears, Turner does not eschew foregrounding the handiness of his materials. Unlike other artists of his generation, though, Turner has yet to cast off a working class aesthetic for the sake of some immobile, sculptural gem concealing the facture that went into making it. This doesn’t make his work “raw” or otherwise appearing unfinished: rather, it serves to highlight a subordinating narrative that is part and parcel with the substance of the sculptures he produces. That is a heavy-sounding statement; but Turner also makes heavy art. In an exhibition composed of metals, combustible materials, and strategic concealment—how else can you describe the consistency of this body of work? And what makes his current exhibition all the more unsettling is its seeming indifference to the world outside it. There is no “message” apart from the fact that Turner's materials are sourced from emotionally loaded places: an active psychiatric facility, among other locals. Yet what keeps his work from becoming a mere archive of detritus is less his use of formalism than his reliance on narrativity, on the stories invested in his materials.
This is a no bullshit aesthetic that the reader unfamiliar with Turner might think should be louder. And while it’s unfair to call Turner’s gestures subtle (his works have the clear-eyed acuity of an emergency exit disguised as a weapon, and vice versa), there’s a quietness about his current exhibition that verges on self-effacement. Viewers will likely see little, at first sight, apart from the gallery space itself. This is partly due to architectural precedent, and partly a nervous tick embedded into the nature of the exhibition. There’s some awful symbolism inherent in how overwhelming a lighting system can be, and how this typically happens in galleries. I personally prefer the vistas offered by private collections. People who live with art generally don't like having their works steeped in a blinding brilliance. Turner destructively comments on this with Double Blind / Mercury Release. Smashing a gallery light signals a refusal to live in a world of hypervisibility. But there's an aspect of futility to this gesture. It's true that Turner's work is often difficult to see—and it's certainly difficult to box into digitally reproducible squares. While not exactly overplaying his hand, the artistic statement is something to consider.
Ultimately, Turner's latest body of work on view feels transitional in a healthy way. Formerly, his sculptural works were generally passive to the realities of architectural precedents and the operations of chemical processes. In this show, there’s a sense of willfulness that makes it more humanizing. While not being humorous in any conventional way, and while certainly not lording it over the viewer with sarcasm, there’s a miasmic tone throughout the exhibition that works well with the repetitive, minimalist quality of the works on view. Will his current exhibition shatter your world, dispelling you of all illusions? Probably not. But how often does art transform a person, altering how they view their place in society? With a regard for the stories told about art, as much as the material heft they have for the viewer’s gaze, Turner is making a stab at the unspoken potentials inherent in the great legacy of Lippardian dematerialization. He asks us to actively equate illusion and material reality, transforming one for the sake of the other. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is an artist-writer-musician-curator currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems, and reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, Archinect, Hyperallergic, Heavy Feather Review, Arcade Project, Folder, Drag City Books, and other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth (NY), and FEELINGS for synthesis gallery (Berlin).view all articles from this author