Dennis Knight Turner: The forgotten NZ artist

Labourers, Dennis K Turner

A Continuous Line: The Art of Dennis K Turner
Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland University
Until March 1

Dennis Knight Turner is one of the almost forgotten New Zealand artists of the 20th century. His importance has occasionally been acknowledged over the years but now this new exhibition, curated by Richard Wolfe, has provides an opportunity to fill in the missing pieces of the New Zealand art history jigsaw.

There are several artists in the history of New Zealand art who have had a significant impact on the local scene yet have been expatriates for most of their lives.

Len Lye, Max Gimblett and Frances Hodgkins were significant internationally and also introduced aspects of international practice into New Zealand. Other artists such asGraeme Percy were successful internationally but had little impact locally.

Turner, however, left New Zealand at the height of his powers to find life as an artist in the UK although success eluded him there. He has been generally excluded from the mainstream writing about art history or given scant mention.

The major book on New Zealand art by Gil Docking Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting (and subsequently revised), makes no mention of him at all. Few other books on New Zealand art make mention of him and then only as an also-ran.

A Continuous Line shows he was an artist who appeared to have a greater understanding of international art than most of his contemporaries. His work acknowledged aspects of cubism and expressionism in the early 1950s in a way that few other artists were able to.

More importantly, he saw that art had a social and political purpose.

Like several of his contemporaries, he was knowledgeable about mural art that related to the socialist realism of Russian, Europe and the Americas. In the late 1940s he was commissioned to paint a series of murals depicturing workers of the various unions. These works are hung as a triptych in the Gus Fisher foyer.

He used Maori motifs early on in his work as he had known Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters, who introduced him to the rock drawings.

Turner's use of the material and some of his subsequent series of works extended the material from the mere decorative elements of artists like Walters.

Turner created works that combined a primitive spirituality with a modernist interest in symbols. His Horned Beats series had links to European primitivism while his Sign Series of the 1990s used symbolism drawn from Japan, North and Central America, combining them into cartoon-like versions that provided a form of cultural  and spiritual integration.

His book Tangi, which was an illustrated book on the subject of tangihanga largely related to Princess Te Puea’s funeral, predated other important explorations of Maori culture such as Ans Westra’s Washday at the Pah and Peter McIntyre’s depiction of Maori in his book, New Zealand.

The exhibition includes several of Turner's large Landscape Head Works of the early 1960s, which are major examples of modern New Zealand art.

They bring together themes of landscape, portraiture and history in some of the strongest works produced in the country at that time and are an indication he would have been a formidable presence in the New Zealand art scene if he had stayed here.

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