Stephen Turpie

steveStephen Turpie was the Australian artist of the year-long Malaysia-Australia Visual Arts Residency at Rimbun Dahan in 1998.

Stephen’s is currently a lecturer of painting and drawing at LaTrobe University, Bendigo, and his qualifications include DipArt (Painting-VCA), GradDipFine Art (VCA), MVA (RMIT). Stephen has a range of interests that include sculpture, installations and time-based work along with his continuing practice as a painter. His research involves major phenomenological questions about the self, visual analogy and the engineered world, expressed in a metaphorical and sybolic format. Stephen Turpie has undertaken numerous other residencies, including at Green Street Studios , New York (1986) and Padiès Château , Lempaut, France (2008).

Catalogue Essay

In these new works, Stephen Turpie explores the evasive qualities of appearances; the ambiguity of things which have not come into sharp focus, but are demanding of our attention and ‘as through a glass darkly’ we try to make sense. Fusing imagery from biology, construction and abstract thought (mathematics, physics and philosophy) he traverses the natural and cultural worlds. This symbolic play in the metaphorical landscape resonates with an emotional intensity gained only from personal and ontological inquiry.

Turpie’s visual themes are influence by a diverse array of artists and works: from Joseph Beuys’ conceptual investigations into the fundamental principles of energy and the effects of both natural forces and of art, to Jean Miro’s symbolic innovations and Ken Whisson’s abstract treatment of the landscape.

The formal concerns of past works in painting, as well as sculpture and performance, recur again in this new series. His painted forms display the solidity and presence of three dimensional objects which are poised in ambiguous landscapes and receding intimate spaces. These arrangements are reminiscent of Turpie’s sculptural works of over a decade and a half ago in which clusters of discarded objects were delicately balanced in small museum boxes. These curious objects were the decaying leftovers of another time whose concealed histories conferred a certain dignity to their presence, the significance of which remained quietly elusive.

Stephen Turpie’s work contemplates ancient modes of thought alongside modern and contemporary ideas which reflect something of the all-at-once attempts to render life and appearances in theoretical guises. The use of the landscape genre is a significant choice for this subject as the natural cycles and biological processes have been commonly employed as metaphors for psychological and social phenomena in both ancient and contemporary descriptions. Turpie’s images are carefully constructed between the borders of figuration and abstraction, as such, his ‘figures’ are neither fixed in meaning nor anchored in the landscapes over which they hover.

Turpie’s choce and use of symbols reflect the flavour of Pre-

Socratic and Platonic modes of analogical thought. The invisible correspondences by which “all things pass through all things”; the similarity in dissimilars, were uncovered by the principle of analogy, for example, almonds are good for the eyes, walnuts for the brain, the seven planets with the sun and the moon relect the nine portals of the body (macrocosm=microscosm). The ephemeral nature of these protean transformations was underpinned by the notions of singularity and duality, sameness and difference, harmony and strife.

Throughout these works, T-junctions, chromosomes, blue intruding figures, houses and wedges group together in pairs, clusters or alone, their identity of difference forming the basis of their relation. For example, the house stands in relation to the cultural landscape as the chromosome to the internal microcosm of the body, as the defining points of civilization and humanity. These symbols display simultaneous features of singularity, self-same duality and multiplicity, yet, their identities are never simple: a T-junction can be a signature (of the artist perhaps), a letter referring to the building blocks of language and representation, it could be a telephone pole signifying energy and communication grids imposed on a barren landscape, or perhaps it represents the junction of various levels of existence, the organic and inorganic, or the biological and social. Two T’s join together to form a gateway, a bridge or a simplified dog. The chromosomes sometimes curiously look like two copulating figures, in other places like a solitary floating character. Electric blue figures invade the picture plane resembling cells in mitosis, ovum or phallus, or perhaps neurological cross sections indicating either the dualistic tension of creativity, the genesis of life, of the beginnings of intelligence and complexity.

Turpie’s imagery concurs with Richard Long’s description of his work as “a balance between patterns of nature and the formation of human abstract ideas”. Lattices, webs and branching structures are observed throughout the natural world from biology to chemistry and the mathematical descriptions of contemporary physics. The ambiguity of the brain/cell division when juxtaposed with such structures also brings into question the relationship between the structure of the world and the structure of our perceptions. The extent to which these patterns of order are inherent in the world or are imposed on sensations by the brain remains in question. In natural and human sciences as well as in art, the dividing lines between invention and discovery are hazy. For over a century, these issues have been hotly debated through the perennial questions of evolution theories and their explanatory metaphors.

Turpie’s depiction of the wedge/arrow, indicates the dark underbelly of evolution theories (competition and biological arms races) as well as the teleological notions (arrow of the Great Chain of Being) which Darwin’s wedge had overturned. The patchwork effect of some of the larger works reflect the newer modes of describing evolutionary change (and perhaps the creative process of the artist) as ‘biffrucation, tinkering and bricolage’. In biological terms, these notions emphasise the historical contingency and the exquisite imperfections of the actual structures which developed by chance from the myriad possible alternatives which had insufficient opportunity to develop. It also provides an apt metaphor for the artist and his work. According to evolutionary biologist, Francois Jacob:

“…often without knowing what he is going to produce, he (the tinkerer) uses what ever he finds around him, old cardboards, pieces of strings, fragments of wood or metal, to make some kind of workable object. As pointed out by Claude Levi-Strauss, none of the materials at the tinkerer’s disposal has a precise and definite function. Each can be used in different ways. What the tinkerer ultimately produces is often related to no special project. It merely results from a series of contingent events from the opportunities he has to enrich his stock with leftovers.”

The historical result of this process of tinkering is not a seamlessly engineered creation, but as Jacob proposes,

“a patchwork of odd sets pieced together when and where opportunity arose. For the opportunism of natural selection is not simply a matter of indifference to the structure and operations of its products. It reflects the very nature of historical processes, full of contingency.”

Turpie is both a tinkerer of symbols and a bricoleur of ideas. His fascination with the processes of nature, thought and art are both hidden and revealed in the verdant ‘openness’ of his paintings which allows us to explore the question of how ideas and experience are ordered in our attempts to apprehend the world. To the Appolonian urge for clarity and definition, Turpie’s fuzzy chromosomes reply,

“Do not befriend an elephant keeper,
if you have no room to entertain an elephant”.


Catalogue by Elizabeth Thomas