Machine music

A recent critique of an anthology of Detroit poetry describes Detroit writers as largely "music-centered" and there seems to be an implication that this is a euphemism for "substanceless." The survey of the steel sculpture of Chris Turner now on view at Johanson Charles Gallery shows it to be completely musical -- and any nagging concern over its value (as if somehow music is worthless) evaporates. After all, this is Detroit and we are music.

This is a huge exhibition of a single artist's work and it does traverse the genre map. There are 32 pieces of sculpture in this extraordinary Eastern Market gallery -- perhaps the finest urban art space in Detroit -- and they go from functional modernist furniture and surreal primitive assemblage, even '50s minimalist pop silhouettes, to a most recent suite of sleek, borderline-figurative, jazzy pedestal pieces.

You might know Turner's sculpture from the hard-to-miss fence around the Blue Moon restaurant's outdoor patio on Woodward in the Cultural Center. It's a wonderful flat metal composition with a free-jazz line that jumps and bounces around, creating strong, interlocking positive-negative spaces. Turner's new work does have at its base a musical sensibility, but it stretches out and each piece has something to engage us beyond a simple lyrical impulse. "Gracious Bow" is a tall, lean, rusted danceresque figure with arms or wings spread back and a rusted metal ladle for a head bowed down to us. It echoes a famous classical sculpture, but more importantly, being composed of found metals, it situates the work in Detroit and recycles our history. Turner is a welder in an industrial city and he hasn't forgotten that. His comic flirtations with art history also include "Ako-Ben Ode to Picasso" which recycles a garden rake in homage to Picasso's "Bull's Head," which itself recycles a bicycle seat and handlebars.

Like "Ultra Lounger 2000," the humorously titled modernist chaise lounge, these works not only parody art movements, they extend Turner's vocabulary. Each of his pieces, though in some way derivative, has his own humorous, clever, even visionary sensibility behind it. His strong, sure-handed intuition is seen again and again in the lines of the work.

"I don't have any formal art education; I just go at it in a real immediate way. I just see things, get an idea and make things," says Turner. As a welder for an industrial company, he started making little sculptural pieces on the job, and it all went on from there. He got experience in a real art studio when teaching a graduate art student to weld. So in spite of having no art education, he has made up for it with a smart adherence to his own sensibility and found what he needs to know.

The latest work includes a suite of nine pieces, entitled "Composite Compositions," that reveals a more technically difficult handling of metal, which is still scavenged and recycled by Turner, keeping him in the Cass Corridor tradition. These polished pieces sit on traditional pedestals and reveal an acute sensibility working in three dimensions. Each piece is a singular gesture that creates a tension between poetic figuration and abstraction. The many gestures resolve into a balletic composition that finds the music in Turner's sculpture to be a beautiful harmony of all the parts working together. One senses that the sky is the limit for Turner's art future and we see the beginnings of it in this, as one writer put it, "first one-man group show."

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