Water inspires and pervades the joyful paintings of Milwaukee native Khari Turner

Ever since he was a child in Milwaukee, on the shores of Lake Michigan, Khari Turner (b. 1991) has been drawn to water. Turner found a unique way to continue this connection by incorporating water from lakes, rivers, and oceans with personal associations or ties to black history in her contemporary figurative paintings.

To reflect the composition of the human body, he mixes paints that are almost 60% water. He also uses his found water as a “primer” applied to canvases before painting.

Through July 10, 2022, the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, WI presents Turner’s first solo museum exhibition in his home state, “Mirroring Reflection,” showcasing his work in a gallery overlooking the Milwaukee River, a source that the artist drew water to use in the paintings exhibited in the exhibition.

“Water has always been predominant in terms of spaces for reflection and spaces for me to really start to ask myself what I want to do with my life, how I want to move forward; or if I had struggles, I was sitting right next to the water,” Turner told Forbes.com.

The show features 26 of his water-infused works.

“It was always so calming,” he recalled of his maturity around the water, adding with a chuckle, “and then I was jumping off rocks all the time.”

“The water does all the heavy lifting”

Turner’s paintings are highly symbolic, combining abstract and realistic renderings of black figures to emphasize his ancestors’ spiritual and physical relationship to water. Any discussion of black life and history in America where it connects to water must trace back to the transatlantic slave trade. Turner approaches this reality from a different angle.

“I used to try to make art about this trauma, but (I thought) it wasn’t helpful for people who are already looking at this work and know it,” Turner said.

Instead of insisting, replicating the anguish expressed by countless other artists, he found a different way of using water.

“It helps me to be able to create works with this material because I can deal with all this information, all the atrocities of slavery and also all the ideas about migration and travel, but I don’t have to create images that show that because the material already does that, you know where those materials come from,” says Turner.

The bodies of black ancestors thrown overboard between Africa and the Americas have decomposed in the water. They have become one with him. Some of them come back through Turner’s paintings when he draws water from the ocean.

The material sufficiently tells this terrible story.

“Then I’m allowed to create images of happiness and joy, but never anything that has to deal with the trauma of that water,” Turner said. “The water does all the heavy lifting. It frees me as an artist to be able to create images that say I know there is this story, but I choose to live with it in a way that I can still speak with joy.

It reveals a more authentic self.

“It felt like it was a lot more personal and it was a better message if I (could take that water) and apply it to (joy) – we’ll still ride the bikes, we’ll still go to the park, we’re always having a good time,” Turner said, referencing images from his paintings. “(Water trauma) is part of the story, and you should know it’s part of the story. story, but I’m not going to stop being an artist. I’m going to be here to do what I want to do and I want to be able to create joy even though I know this story.

Success on the world stage

“Mirroring Reflection” follows Turner’s international debut at the 2022 Venice Biennale last spring, where a display of his paintings remains on view through November at the Palazzo Bembo to coincide with the ongoing Super Bowl of Contemporary Art.

He spent the month of May in Stockholm, Sweden, preparing an exhibition of entirely new works to be exhibited there this summer.

Emerging from a pandemic residency in Venice, Calif., with an MFA from Columbia University under his belt, the increasingly global artist who now lives in Brooklyn is no doubt on the about to make a major breakthrough in his career.

Despite this international success, Turner considers the MOWA show to be a highlight of her early career.

“People who really influenced my work or grew up seeing me got to see this show,” he said. “My art teacher in high school came to this show and people I used to work with so it’s really an amazing time. Venice is awesome and I hope one day I will have my own pavilion to represent the United States, but it was really different to be able to give back to (my) community, to create works of art and to show them, (hoping) that it might remind (visitors) of home because a lot of these images are based on me growing up (in Milwaukee) – kids on bikes, going to the pool, sitting in class.

For additional insight into Turner’s evolution as a man and an artist, he recommends a visit to Klode Park in Whitefish Bay, a community just north of downtown Milwaukee and less than an hour’s drive from MOWA.

“It’s the best park I’ve been to and it’s really where I got a lot of my motivation and where I get water from when I use Lake Michigan water for the work that I do,” Turner said. “This park is laid out where you see Lake Michigan but the land around it curves on either side so you don’t see any part of the city and it’s mostly all trees and when you look at it you feel like you are looking at the ocean.

Look into a painting by Khari Turner.

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