The World as Still Life by Mark Turgeon: Carolyn Funk

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Mark Turgeon on view at CUE Art Foundation October 18 -December 1, 2007.

One can be a traveler at home as well as abroad. In a wildly colorful language evocative of the Fauves, the painter Mark Turgeon depicts domestic artifacts and easily forgotten souvenirs that are excavations of the ordinary: vases of flowers, an airport security sticker, barcodes, DVDs, textiles, paperback books, street posters, statuettes, Nike swooshes, the Fair Trade emblem. The pictorial elements record the precious alongside the utterly disposable, compiling a visual archaeology of the detritus of everyday.

The paintings are meticulously installed edge-to-edge horizontally and vertically, covering the entire wall with portable-size frescos on canvas. The edges of the plaster surfaces of the small paintings are uneven, presenting an impression of chiseled fragments. The mini-frescoes could have been rescued from a crumbling wall. The paintings function as artifacts, cultural records, or relics, suggesting that which is bygone. Mingled among the 80-some small paintings are large-size fresco fragments. On a separate wall is an assortment of international soccer jerseys carefully embroidered by hand, transformed from generic to precious things.

As a studied arrangement of consumable objects, the still-life genre is the conceptual and formal template for Turgeon's paintings. Bundles of wilted flowers saved by a friend working at a neighborhood flower stand became for Turgeon a reference to the classic still-life format of flowers in a vase. Rather than depicting bouquets in their consummate prime, he painted the deposed and decomposing. Common to the genre of the still life is the ever-present reminder of temporality and death-life contained and preserved in suspended time.

Historically, the still life depicted subjects intended for consumption: fruit, shellfish, fresh flowers, fancy material goods. Turgeon, instead, focuses on objects that are used, useless and everyday. His paintings are tokens of a material existence. He sets up a juxtaposition between cultural waste-stickers, wrappers, pins-and the natural decay of flowers. Nature, in Turgeon's paintings, is presented as controlled and domesticated material. A book painted in Love Graciously bears the title The Wonderful Adventures of Paul Bunyan. The final line in the actual text is: "He [Paul Bunyan] will not be happy until the last tree is cut down."  Nature exists just to be used up by us.

Turgeon, through the bricolage technique of incorporating whatever elements are immediately at hand, opens up new possibilities for the pictorial device of flowers in vases. In 12.19.8.10.1, the image of a DVD occupies the place of the vase with books sprouting from the DVD as flowers. In other works, texts and image overlap, interweaving functional and decorative objects in a flattened sense of space. The artist also incorporates things found during his international travels. Souvenirs take the form of miniatures, postcards and cheap mementos, preserving lived experience in an object. Turgeon's laborious reveries place such souvenirs in a context that redomesticates them through painting. He presents a range of vases, varying from honey jars to ancient pottery of Pompeii, to diverse vases photographed during the artist's travels, in order to dismantle a hierarchy that lends significance to a precious ancient artifact at the expense of a disposable preserves jar. The viewer is not encouraged to construct a metaphorical reading, but rather to regard each found object as an archaeological discovery. The questions asked by the viewer are not "What is the cultural significance of that depiction?" but "Is this a picture of a miniature or a sculpture; is that an ancient vase or a fabrication bought on Canal Street; what mythology are these pictures constructing?"

Still lifes take objects from many different eras and put them together in a single moment of time, flattened on the picture surface which functions like the neutralizing space of a tabletop or a blank room. This distilling of temporality is useful for the viewer. Rather than immediately recognizing cultural clues and markers through catalogued facts and context, the viewer is required to look at the image as an isolated event.

Stacks of books are a common pictorial motif in Turgeon's paintings. The piled books, like the vases, serve less as clues to decode the paintings and more as artifacts or disposed materialOne stack contains generic socio-political titles-Civilization and Barbarism, Upside Down, The Iron Triangle, American Dynasty, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning-as well as poetic or artistic texts, such as Neruda's poems, or medieval culture. Turgeon exploits the evacuation of meaning from these artifacts, marking the pervasive state of contemporary culture. In his paintings, all seems toylike, fake, decorative and useless.

 One painting contains the phrase: "Ancora in Vita." Translated from Italian, it means: "Even More Life" or "Continuing Life." The play between the Italian word ancora and the English world still rejuvenates the dead space of the still life. No longer a memento mori, the still life brings the wilted flowers alive and buoyant color activates the ruinous surface of the painting. In Turgeon's paintings, "still life" heralds persisting, or "still living."

Turgeon's work constructs an archive of language from ancient to contemporary, reframing older language from a present perspective. The artist fancifully creates Latinesque words rendered in crude, cartoony ancient fonts. The phrases are, often unrecognizably, linguistic and/or homonymic puns. Luv Venuste, for one, loosely translates as "Luv Graciously." "Luv," spelled incorrectly, looks Latin while also being a kind of colloquial or shorthand usage common in modern life. The word puns and visual bricolage function to archaize the contemporary pictorial elements in the paintings. The viewer is urged into a reflective space to inspect banal elements of the everyday from a viewpoint of retrospection. The paintings stimulate thought about the ordinary and ignored, asking the viewer to reinspect contemporary pattern and design, the handmade and mass-produced, as one would inspect relics that are already archived and extinct.

Like the Fauves who adopted the symbolist incorporation of ancient and mythological motifs and imagery, Turgeon consistently combines ancient and contemporary languages. The Fauves, treading a line between the domestic and barbaric (Les Fauves translates as The Wild Beasts), irreverently painted ancient, mythical and mystical motifs in a visual space made frenzied by non-naturalistic, pure-pigment color.    

Turgeon employs symbols extracted from cultures both modern and ancient. The Fair Trade logo­--a globe with arrows through it-here arises in gold, and seems visionary and mystical like an astrological sign. In the painting Sisters of Mercy, the three Graces--appropriated from ancient vases--hover behind giant pink peonies, combining ancient mythological imagery with modern brushy blossoms. In another painting, a stalemated chess game has a blue-and-white checkered board with shiny orb-like playing pieces. The stalemate in the chess contest imitates the viewer's thwarted attempts to find specific meanings in Turgeon's punning paintings.

Exhaustively pursuing a project of the ornamental and handmade, Turgeon has mounted a series of soccer jerseys alongside his paintings. Beginning with the machine-made object, Turgeon diligently embroiders emblems, names, pictures and other motifs on the flat surfaces of the jerseys. The Dutch jersey salutes Rembrandt, affixing a portrait of the Dutch artist to the back of the shirt. The Argentine jersey is stamped with the label, The Disappeared. Referencing the disturbing political/domestic problem of kidnappings in Argentina, the slogan recapitulates Turgeon's practice: rescuing those things that are forgotten, ignored thrown out. Turgeon records the disappeared, and in doing so instructs the viewer to remember, observe and look again.

The combination of contemporary, modern and ancient, Western and Eastern, fine art and decorative, generic and authentic, political and mystical visual languages, gives the viewer an encyclopedia of information. Providing representation to the disappeared allows banal and everyday souvenirs a continued existence. Turgeon reinvigorates archaic and outdated forms: The fresco persists. Painting persists. Life persists amid the landscape of debris and the culture of impermanence. In looking over the wall full of hieroglyphs and thrown-away images, the viewer is confronted, through the decorative still life, with a sense of the world in ruins. In the presence of this vast visual archive, there is too much to say. Thus, one turns to inspect the minute, the decayed and the overlooked in order to bring them to new life.

The writer, Carolyn Funk, is an artist working and living in Brooklyn. She recently received her M.F.A. in Painting from Cornell University.  Funk participated in the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University in 2006, and has a B.F.A. from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in affiliation with Tufts University.  Constructing installations that include paintings, snapshots and readymades, her artistic practice focuses on the genre and the generic, interrogating ways in which knowledge and desire are distributed through representation.