“I’ve learned that the space of an art gallery is the most important thing to showing my work or anyone’s work. If the space is right, you should be able to place one piece of sculpture in the middle of the gallery and take a Big Mac, take a bite out of it, stick it on the floor under the sculpture and it’ll all look good because of the space. That’s what this new gallery means to me. It’s the right space.”
Sculptor Chris Turner can turn a bit of culturally edgy word soup into a smart-view-of-art anecdote, as this comment demonstrates. But more importantly, it shows that Turner is there — at 4731, his new gallery project — alive and ready to do business. Turner’s a leaner, more-present man after two years of lying low during the ass-busting restoration of his incredible building just south of I-94 on Grand River, one of Detroit’s legendary arteries. It’s work that he did by himself with the help of friends.
“They’ve dubbed the neighborhood ‘Broho’,” he says with a good-natured twinkle in his eye, “because there’s another art space with studios across the street run by Donny Tyree which will be open to the public when we’re having openings here.” With a burst of laughter he says, “They call his space ‘Donho,’” referring to the wacky, pop-Hawaiian nightclub performer.
The years of hard work and networking have made Turner into a well-rounded, thoughtful and perceptive person. He’s always been a good talker, as in an interview published in Metro Times five years ago when Kevin Hanson of Johanson Charles Gallery, another great Detroit art space, gave him his first exhibition. Turner’s was a fine, albeit uneven, solo debut on the art scene.
“I was running in there with new pieces during the opening, wanting everything I made to be seen.”
Over the years, Turner has worked with other artists and honed his skills. He and Matthew Blake, in collaboration with Taru Lahti and Phil Mason, won a City of Detroit competition in 1999 to create the Millennium Bell now situated in Grand Circus Park. And he’s learned that less work in a space can be more.
Turner’s enormous new gallery — a high-ceilinged, architecturally fascinating, refitted bank — allows “a work of art to breathe, to have space around it so that a viewer can focus on it. This is a space which artists who do really big work, like Rico and Bob [Turner gestures toward large, brilliant new paintings by Bob Sestok and Rico Africa] can feel comfortable with.”
The main floor of the gallery has an engaging layout that allows for long, distant views of work. And it also has a couple small, intimate spaces, as in the old bank vault, with lower ceilings that can show smaller works of art. The building is also a good fit for this ambitious artist, who has turned a large back room into his studio. Through a little window in a steel door at the back of the gallery, you can see Turner’s cutting and welding tools, as well as drawings and a model of a public sculpture that he plans to enter in a competition for the front of Huntington Woods’ “cultural center.”
4731 is a four-story building, the second floor of which is already outfitted with spacious, well-constructed studios. As we wander around, Turner introduces me to three artists hard at work painting. All three enthusiastically endorse the inspiration they get from working in this new artists’ community.
“The whole idea for the gallery is to do maybe only three or four exhibitions a year. I’m slowly allowing the space to speak to me,” says Turner. “Artists can make proposals for major installations, whether retrospectives or concept shows. I feel I can mount museum-quality exhibitions here.”
In addition to showing a new body of work in November by Heidelberg Project artist Tyree Guyton, Turner talks about a fascinating possibility for exhibiting art made by prison inmates. He’s already working with someone from a state prison.
“Obviously inmates won’t be able to come here for the opening, but I’m working on the idea of doing video portraits of their lives, with interviews of their families and videos of them working in prison.”
He’s also talking with someone from the Cranbrook Academy of Art about doing an exhibition of the history of furniture designed by Cranbrook artists.
“I’ve come to the position where anyone’s perception of what makes art is valid. If you show up in this space and have opinions and philosophies about art, that’s what counts.”
Turner’s open-minded views have been formed by working with a variety of tradesmen, architects, builders and collectors, in addition to a lot of other artists. His partner and the co-owner of the building is Rick Geyer, who’s a collector and “works for a company that does creative business solutions. He’s also an excellent woodworker” with whom Turner has collaborated on other projects. “My contribution to the partnership is that I have the knowledge and resources to get things done in restoring this building.”
Looking around the space, it’s clear that good craftsmanship and up-to-code-quality work have gone into restoring what Turner thinks might be a building that was designed by famed industrial-modernist architect Albert Kahn.
“The design of the building allows for huge open spaces without interior support walls. That was a Kahn invention and a few people who know have said it probably was designed by him.”
Turner seems to be aggressively finding out what it takes to work with old buildings.
“Just this morning I was down at the city offices with a handful of dimes making copies of OSHA standards. It’s what I’ve got to do to get it right.”
4731 opened with a stunning exhibition of painting and sculpture by a variety of very fine artists: “Unknown Spaces Spaces Unknown” was the second in a series of “visual raves” wherein Turner plans to use different sites around the city for showing art. In addition to paintings by Africa, Sestok and John Linardos, the show presented a great wall relief by Lahti and closed-form sculptures by Kate Silvio, as well as three paintings and a sculpture by Turner himself. The vault contained an installation of the work of Keong Park.
“One of my own interests as an artist — and you can see it in the piece on the wall by Lahti as well as in my own — is in works that are functionally ambiguous. Don’t tell anybody I told you this, but Lahti’s wall relief is really also a coffee table and my sculpture is a chair.”
Turner explains that his piece was part of plan to make a long form of the sculpture so that you could literally “cut pieces off of it to make a couch, a loveseat or chairs,” like the one in the gallery.
Turner says, “I’m in dialogue with some artists from New York, as well as others from Europe and South America, so we’ll be showing artists from other places. That’s a big part of the plan for 4731, to create dialogue with other places.”
Looking fit, relaxed and graciously talking about his plans, Turner doesn’t seem at all like a dreamer, but rather someone seriously capable of making it all work.
The next show at 4731 — featuring new work by Tyree Guyton — will open on an as-yet-unspecified date in November. The gallery is at 4731 Grand River, Detroit; call 313-894-4731.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]