JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Sleeper Studio (here). Softcover with open spine binding, 10×8 inches, with folded and die-cut cover, 86 pages, with 57 black-and-white reproductions. Includes an essay by Terence Washington. Design by Studio Elana Schlenker. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
A show of this body of work is currently on view at the Penumbra Foundation in New York (here).
Comments/Context: One of the most fundamental tests a photographer might set for him or herself is to make a successful image out of just two elements – paper and light. And across the history of the medium, the genre of the cut (and crumpled) paper abstraction has engaged many masters, with surprisingly varied output. Francis Bruguière was perhaps the most accomplished of these cut paper enthusiasts, turning sliced sheets of paper into swirlingly moody symphonies of light and shadow, but artists as different as Jaromir Funke, Frederick Sommer, and Sheila Pinkel (reviewed here), and more recently John Houck and Miriam Böhm, have all memorably brought their own aesthetic and compositional innovations to the seemingly simple task of making a photograph of paper.
But when we brainstorm the names of photographers who have experimented with the cut paper abstraction, very few names of Black photographers quickly come to mind, which is where the contemporary photographer Aaron Turner enters the conversation. Turner’s photobook Moves From The Archive, which draws on an evolving series of projects the artist has called “Black Alchemy Volumes 1, 2, & 3”, actively explores cut paper abstraction, and studio based assemblage and construction more broadly, but within an intentional and overt context of Blackness. It’s a vantage point on the genre we largely haven’t seen before, and one that blends classic paper abstraction techniques with overlays and projections of archival imagery, grafting various Black personas and histories onto the artist’s paper creations.
Roughly half of the photographic abstractions included in this photobook don’t directly engage with race or legacy, but simply explore the possibilities of an actively risk-taking studio-based paper practice, albeit within the limited tonal ranges of black and white. Turner arranges papers on tabletops and studio walls, with light (and shadow) cast across the forms, often creating shines, warps, flares, and areas of glare. He explores the properties of reflective papers, crumpled sheets of aluminum foil, and at least one mirror. He builds paper structures on top of pedestals and plinths, and hangs dark and light backdrops of paper and cut fabric behind his setups. He tries out multiple exposures and in camera effects, creating shadowy layers, drifts, and blisters of light. He crafts sculptural towers out of curved papers, and examines gathered piles of castoffs and scraps on the studio floor. He tries out a transparent prism, Matisse-like cutouts, and LeWitt-like striping, as well as gridded folds, curled edges, and shadows cast directly on the walls. In short, Turner’s studio becomes a mad scientist laboratory of visual experimentation, each new image seemingly leveraging various trial and error iterations.
Turner weaves a sense of Blackness into his paper abstractions by adding vintage photographs (and projections of vintage imagery) to his compositions. His approach seems to both acknowledge and build on the works of Darrel Ellis (reviewed here), who projected his father’s family photographs onto sculptural reliefs made of plaster. In a sense, Ellis was looking for ways to both distort those photographs and artistically make room for himself within them, and Turner seems to be wrestling with similar impulses.
Many of Turner’s works offer a partial glimpse of a famous Black face, including Sidney Poitier, David Hammons, and James Baldwin, hovering within or interrupted by his paper abstractions. Activists from Frederick Douglass to Bayard Rustin are similarly engaged (and honored), with cracked and repaired constructions that piece together fragments of their faces. Turner then bridges out to other Black newsmakers, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their Black Power fists raised at the 1968 Olympics, various Black soldiers serving in (and returning from) World War II, and the Tuskegee syphilis study survivor Herman Shaw. In each case, Black history is mixed with sophisticated techniques of abstraction, with geometric shadows blocking heads, projected images distorted and reimagined by paper intrusions, and areas of bright light channeling our attention in one direction or another.
Similar techniques are also applied to images of Turner himself and his extended family, with studio portraits, graduation gowns, and smiling faces interwoven into several artworks. A few images incorporate a portrait of his grandmother, and one self-portrait projects Turner’s face across and behind those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Still other works include disembodied hands, which touch, hold, and even grasp and tug at various pictures, and a broken hand mirror, which offers its own partial reflection of a younger version of the artist. These more intimate and personal works seem to find Turner trying to insert himself and his family into his constructed photographic world, building new kinds of interactions between his life and his art, where the images are both subject and object.
Given the complexity in Turner’s images, the design and construction of Moves From The Archive have been toned down to allow the photographs to do most of the work. The folded front and back covers bring echo some of Turner’s innovation, with swooping die cut holes that unfold on the front, and a neat place for the book essay tucked into the back. Inside, the images are printed on shiny coated stock, and the reproductions vary in their size and placement on the pages, from full bleed images to smaller rectangles placed in one corner or anther surrounded by white space; the effect upends the normal rhythm of page turns, with each spread offering a different arrangement of visual material. In general, the design here is simple and unobtrusive, aside from the flourishes found in the covers.
With Moves From The Archive, Turned has placed himself in an enviable position – at the edge of broadly open artistic white space, armed with many of the tools necessary to capitalize on that opportunity. What his photobook signals is that photographic cut paper abstraction and studio assemblage can indeed more inclusively incorporate Black perspectives, and the more he leans into the complexity of the emotions and histories that define the contemporary Black experience, the richer his work will likely get. As seen here, his initial steps are promising, but Turner can clearly go much further to explore Black cultural motifs, symbols, and personas, and to then hybridize those layered aesthetics with the world of controlled abstraction he has already constructed. Those possibilities for recombination and representation feel altogether exciting, and hopefully we will look back at Moves From The Archive many years hence, and retroactively realize that it was the start of something new.
Collector’s POV: Aaron Turner does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the photographer via his website (linked in the sidebar).