According to abstract artist John Turner, if someone were to dust Pablo Picasso’s “Man with a Lamb” sculpture, it would have an 8-year-old’s fingerprints all over it.
Turner, a Philadelphia-based artist, had parents who worked in art museums, giving him unprecedented access to famous pieces. As a child, he often visited the home of late president of Philadelphia Museum of Art R. Sturgis Ingersoll, who owned “Man with a Lamb” before his death.
“I would go out there and climb on it,” Turner said. “That was my jungle gym when I went to Sturgis’ house.”
Turner, now 54, creates large-scale pieces, incorporating a variety of unconventional materials into his paintings. If he had the space, Turner said he would create work “the size of tractor trailers.” His work is currently on display in a solo show titled “Larger Works” at the Painted Bride Art Center, which will remain on view until Feb. 26.
“This is a really exciting exhibit,” said Laurel Raczka, executive director of The Painted Bride. “I really love his work.”
Turner often incorporates materials like acrylic oils, spray paint, dirt, barbed wire, crushed leaves and cork into his work. Hay saturated in paint is Turner’s current material of choice, which he attaches to a canvas.
He prefers to work primarily with his hands and scrapers.
“Even if it looks like I just threw it down on the canvas, it’s like controlled chaos,” Turner said. “Mostly I don’t put stuff down on the canvas until I know exactly where I want it to go. Texture is a huge thing to me.”
Each piece is created through hours of manipulating canvas and adding numerous layers, leading to the uncanny depth his work is known for. Turner’s art usually appears simple from afar, but once approached, the viewer can see the intricacy of each piece.
Turner said he was constantly surrounded by noteworthy artists as a child due to his father, who was a prominent figure in the Philadelphia art scene. But he didn’t want to “push his career further” using his father’s success. Instead, Turner wanted to establish himself based on his own talent—though he still acknowledges the crucial role his childhood played in his decision to pursue art.
Establishing his work on his own was not an easy task. In the ‘80s, when Turner was “painting and figuring out” his style, he requested that a friend from a gallery take a look at some of his early works.
“He looked at them and he said, ‘This is all a bunch of sh-t. If you want my honest opinion, it’s all sh-t,’” Turner said. “I went home and destroyed every single one of them. I took a knife and just slashed them all. I didn’t paint for a number of years after that.”
Eventually, Turner found his way back to painting after deciding that he “was going to do his own thing,” despite the opinions of others.
In the past year or so, Turner said, people have begun to take notice of his work—in a much more positive way.
“John’s art can only be fully appreciated when you get close,” said fellow artist and friend, Eli Bockol. “There you will begin to understand what’s at its core, what it’s made of, and the purposeful care with which it’s constructed. Same can be said of John and his friendship.”
“I want a person to see my work one way when they walk into a space,” Turner said. “And then another way when they get close to it.”
Erin Blewett can be reached at email@example.com.