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Artist Khari Turner on Using Water as a Medium, Supporting Incarcerated Artists, and More

Artist Khari Turner has recently begun introducing a new medium into his paintings, which are often portraits of figures with exaggerated features. Ahead of an upcoming solo exhibition at Nō Studios in Milwaukee, which opened in October, Turner collected water from the Milwaukee River, as well as water from Lake Michigan, to incorporate in some of his works.
Incorporating water in his work, Turner wants to use the medium “in a way of trying to conceptually talk about masculinity and Blackness and strength, but also vulnerability and beauty,” he said in a recent conversation with Brooke Jaffe for “ ARTnews Live ,” our ongoing IGTV series of interviews with a range of creatives.
Turner, who recently completed a residency at Iris Project in Venice, California, and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. at Columbia University, explained that he uses the collected water as a sort of primer before adding a layer of paint or he will “mix the waters in with the paint and thin out the paint to get some type of look that I’m going for, and then I’ll go straight in using the ocean water mix paint to then paint onto the substrate.”
Central to Turner’s work are issues related to social justice in the United States, in particular the ways in which he as an artist can support people who are incarcerated. Turner initially incorporated these issues in his works by using a heavily orange palette to represent prison jumpsuits and metal to symbolize bars. But he felt that this mode of working didn’t go far enough and wasn’t as impactful as he wanted to be.
“So I translated that into action,” Turner said. “Just this April we put on a show of people who have been incarcerated. […] I translated all of that energy from the paintings into actual work that I feel like is helping more.” Turner has given incarcerated artists a voice by putting on shows for them and exhibiting their artwork.
Turner also discussed his work ethic, which he said can be traced back to his role as a cheerleader and mascot in college. “All it comes down to is my work ethic,” he explained. “For sure my coaches at Austin… instilled in me that you always work hard, and you’re not working hard if the person that’s working harder than you isn’t sleeping.”

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