'Elizabeth Turk: Sentient Forms' Swirls Around the Laguna Art Museum

The visual trigger that creates a painting, the nagging thought that becomes a poem, the aria that begins with a musical note, the news article that becomes a film . . . all art has its beginning with some unruly sense impression. Few local artists seem to be as attuned to their perceptions as aptly as local sculptor Elizabeth Turk. Known primarily for her elaborate work with that most sensual of stones, marble, the Orange County resident throws open a few dozen doors to her creative process in the extraordinary “Elizabeth Turk: Sentient Forms” at Laguna Art Museum.

Openly acknowledging that unconscious desire to feel, to experience for oneself the erotic smoothness of Turk's glorious work (and to also protect the delicate pieces), curator Grace Kook-Anderson, who also supplies the insightful notes at the doors of the various galleries, has posted a small piece of marble for the curious to touch—as well as to perhaps inspire them to their own creative processes. Named after the steps the science-literate Turk takes as she develops an art piece, the exhibition is separated into four galleries: “Reflect,” “Inquire,” “Expand” and “Pursue.” In “Reflect,” Turk offers a representation of an idyllic natural setting: A long slab of cut, sanded, dark wood, its rocky edges, lines and knots smoothed out like a flat stone skipping above the surface of a lake. Levitating off the floor, it's the first example you're going to want to feel; the urge to sit and take in your surroundings is strong, but don't—just stand and take in the remainder of the installation.

You'll see water made from wood and paper, the swirls and circles and rivulets of water glowing with LED illumination traveling around a large rock; thick, heavy metal lattices perch there on white bases like complex, overgrown lichens leaching sustenance. The meditative state Turk creates is enhanced by black-and-white mandalas, created by repeatedly x-raying flowers, shells and other natural objects in striking circular patterns. Hung on the wall around the “water,” the frames feel like windows peering out to a monstrously beautiful world just outside.

“Inquire” features pieces from Turk's “Collar” series, smoothly carved obsessions resembling variations of elaborate Elizabethan ruffle collars that somehow escaped H.R. Giger's imagination. Thankfully lacking the gruesome sexuality that haunts the late Swiss surrealist's work, Turk's luminous ivory-colored pieces still offer the dark hint of glamorous torture devices, looking as though they would snap the neck of anyone unfortunate enough to put one on. One looks like a saddle for the thinnest horse in existence; another is a large lily pad melting into the water it's floating on. One piece has elements that resemble DNA strands; another looks like hollow bones devoid of marrow or that thick, squiggly Christmas candy that nobody eats. Following in that food vein, the pieces also resemble some oddly shaped yet vaguely familiar carrion scavenged from an even weirder family holiday gathering. Context is everything, as is interpretation, with an accompanying video featuring some of the same displayed pieces filmed lying in water and sand, suggesting an altogether different scenario; it's as if the sea had given up the picked-clean corpse of some monster from deep within its depths.

In “Expand,” a thick block of uncut stone sits on its pedestal; a complex, carved, Escher-like box the same size (Cage Box 7) rests on an identical pillar nearby. Reflective metal plates hang on the ceiling above, suggesting that after meditation and thought, ideas take shape and fly into the ether. The interior of the gallery has been painted black, with words such as context and interpretation, diagrammed sentences, and slogans including “Novel is creative” scrawled on the walls, then half-erased—ideas started and abandoned or connected to other ideas, the opposite of a blank slate, the artist only fleetingly able to communicate the lightning-fast associations and problem solving that eventually lead to the concrete, with the black box lending a presentational theatricality to the room that carries over to the next gallery, “Pursue.”

In the final room, Turk provides us with some of the innumerable images, references and obsessions that also give her inspiration. Her sketchbooks, hardcover science books, photos and other reading material, laid open before us, are all sealed safely in a see-through case, notes written out on the glass in grease pencil. Imagery clipped from magazines—geometric shapes, the plume of a volcano erupting, the stained-glass framing of insect wings, spiral seashells, spinal columns, elaborate structural patterns—is also presented behind Plexiglas. This detached placement invites us to get close while simultaneously protecting the pictures, but also waves us off: Despite having access to the same influences as Turk, we still can't touch her ordered chaos.

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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