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The Marvelous Marble of Elizabeth Turk

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Winding and weaving ribbons of stone lead into a corner of organized chaos in the Chiarini Marble & Stone shop in the Logan neighborhood of downtown Santa Ana. This tiny corner in this giant marble yard and shop is covered with some of the strangest looking creations, soft and silky, delicate and abstract -- but definitely made from marble. The thin, experimental objects are delicately placed all over, as if this corner was a tiny, dust-covered outdoor art gallery, or an altar to the ancient marble gods. These objects are hypnotic and intimate, drawing the viewer closer and closer, with great detail and intricacy in every aspect of these intense objects.

Elizabeth Turk, the creator of these marvelous specimens, is a contemporary sculptor who, throughout her artistic career, has helped marble come back with a vengeance, into contemporary art. Pioneering this movement in marble arts for over 20 years, Turk has been pushing the boundaries of the material as she creates her monumental contemporary sculptures.

"In all my work, instead of trying to find balance, I try to find the lightness in weight, or the emptiness in mass, kind of deconstructing these paradoxes, not one thing or the other, but somewhere in between," Turk says.

Raised in Orange County, with a geologist father, Turk always loved stone. With such a fondness for rocks, it's amazing that she is able to carve out her own path through this treacherous material. But Turk has been dedicating her career to stone carving. With a background in traditional marble sculpting, after finishing her education in the 1990s, she wanted to make more compelling work than what she had seen already -- something outside the norm of traditional marble figures and decoration. She experimented with the materials of her art form. Eventually, she expanded her practice to include new technologies, helping push her work further toward contemporary abstract. The technologies used in marble carving were accelerating at the same time her work was gaining momentum in the art world, so she tried every new technology available, to hone her style and craft to its peak.

"It's amazing how much memory stone has," she explains, "there is much more of a give than I had originally anticipated, as a material."

Marble Ribbon by Elizabeth Turk
Marble Ribbon by Elizabeth Turk
Marble Collar by Elizabeth Turk
Marble Collar by Elizabeth Turk

A serial artist, Turk explores trends within her own work. Her ribbons, collars, cages and disrupting bands are all seemingly separated within her personal artistic timeline, but the continuity in her style is distinct. Few manipulate stone like Turk. "With all this work," Turk says, "it's trying to deconstruct a paradox, ancient material with all contemporary means -- found objects, new technology, creating a dialogue." She has been on the cover of dozens of sculpture magazines, has won dozens of fellowships and awards including the notorious MacArthur Fellowship, and has been exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world.

Her newest project with the Laguna Art Museum peers past the elegant and strong façade of her creations and dives into process, theory and relativity. With a site-specific installation, a large selection of her collars, and two rooms dedicated to the artist's process and creativity, "Sentient Forms" at Laguna Art Museum serves as a kind of retrospective for Turk. Paired alongside Turk's Sentient Forms in four of the main gallery spaces in the museum is Lita Albuquerque's "Particle Horizon," a second site-specific installation and performance. "Particle Horizon" occupies the museum's Segerstrom Gallery (lower level) and "An Elongated Now" takes place between the museum and Main Beach. These impressive projects from two powerful artists are part of the ongoing annual "Art + Nature" festival in Laguna Beach, which seeks to redefine the way Laguna Beach art interacts with nature.

Site specific installation by Elizabeth Turk for "Sentient Forms" at Laguna Art Museum - -in progress
Site specific installation by Elizabeth Turk for "Sentient Forms" at Laguna Art Museum - -in progress

Museum director Malcolm Warner says that the fusion of art and nature doesn't have to result in landscape painting, and that both nature and art can inspire people, and that they are both equally important to the Laguna Beach community. Taken from the Center for Art & Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Laguna's Art + Nature festival wants to encourage artistic interaction between humankind and nature, and only in their second year, it keeps improving upon itself. Beginning on Thursday, November 6, and coinciding with Laguna's First Thursday Art Walk, galleries like Art Cube, Salt Fine Art, Artists Republic4Tomorrow, De Rus Fine Arts, The Redfern Gallery, Joann Artman, Kelsey Michaels, LCAD on Forest and Peter Blake Gallery will stage exhibitions based on themes illustrating the symbiotic relationships between nature and art.

Site specific installation by Lita Albuquerque for "Particle Horizon" at Laguna Art Museum
Site specific installation by Lita Albuquerque for "Particle Horizon" at Laguna Art Museum

The exhibition at the museum features separate installations by Albuquerque and Turk, but pairing these specific artists together in this festival creates a fascinating dialogue between ethereal, transcendental experiences and powerful objects, as well as the relationship between humankind and nature. Albuquerque is known for her bright and serene abstract works, evoking feeling and experience in subtle yet powerful ways. Paired with Turk, who is known for her abstract, meticulous creations made from Earth's most precious rocks, the dialogue alone between the two artists creates a lush and rich experience for any museum-goer.

Collars by Elizabeth Turk at Laguna Art Museum
Collars by Elizabeth Turk at Laguna Art Museum

Within Turk's installations on the main floor, there are four rooms that include sculptures, installations, multimedia work, an exploratory inspiration space, and one main centerpiece -- a custom mixed media installation inspired by the Ryoan-ji Japanese garden, with a Turk twist. "I just love the serenity, and the contemplation," Turk says about the Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto. Turk chooses her stones based on aesthetics and the unique lives you can see in their appearance, and finds new artistic life with their history. "All of the stones I use have another history to them," she explains. "I love that with every stone there's already a human history and there's also a geologic history."

For "Sentient Forms," she was inspired by the tranquility and aesthetic of the Ryoan-ji garden, but wanted to incorporate the history of the giant stones she found. This site-specific installation features a large, old stone that was uniquely shaped by the rushing water of a river. According to Turk, she was drawn to this stone particularly because of the visible markings of its life and history. In the installation, the stone is placed in the heart of a carved river, made of wood, paper and lights. The river shows the life of the water, and how the rock became shaped that way. Multiple intricate grid sculptures also are in the rush of the fabricated river, and one grid sits calmly on the backside of the large stone. The grids, detailed and meticulously carved, but calm and poised in their placement, gently hug the large stone from the back or the water, depending on the grid.

"I love how, when you approach this side, you can just feel the thousands and thousands of years of water that hit this rock, to make this to carve this; then these grids, will be kind of suspended and kind of tottering in that calm of the other side, and somehow for me, that was a nice allegory."

Detail on Elizabeth Turk installation at Laguna Art Museum
Detail on Elizabeth Turk installation at Laguna Art Museum

This body of work, like many of her others is inspired by the fascinating and tumultuous relationship between humankind and nature. Humans often try to shape their own world, trying desperately to change their surroundings by excessively exerting control over natural forces. "The concept is really the same in all the work," she says, "these really beautiful stones -- whether they're carved by marble, carved by wind or carved by water -- are juxtaposed with this intense human-effort to control nature. I love the contrast."

Luckily, the Art + Nature festival is the perfect opportunity for both her and Albuquerque to explore their feelings about that relationship. This exhibit is a milestone for the museum. Though the museum has had star-studded exhibits in the past, this will be the first site-specific solo show at the Laguna Art Museum for both Turk and Albuquerque. Turk says she hopes that Laguna will grow to be an artistic annex from her studio space in Santa Ana, and that this work will continue to live near the coast, evoking an ongoing conversation about the life of the material, the concepts behind her work and the relationship between humankind and nature.

Like her beloved Southern California home, her work is strong and fluid like the waves of our Pacific Ocean; there is an energy embodied in her work that recalls the elegant yet brash and honest coastline, seducing its viewers with the delicate beauty and resilience inherent in its core.

Her process of creation is instinctual, she spends endless hours contemplating, arranging, sketching, and re-arranging every choice in her work. One can see the energy and effort in her final product, true intention and deliberate artistic decisions. Though her studio at the Chiarini Marble & Stone yard is chaotic and cramped, her home is sleek and spacious, nestled on the edge of the wetlands in Newport. Bright and empty with only artwork to fill the space, she keeps little areas of collected stones from her travels, comparing them and relating them to one another, tracking their lives. She moves back and forth between the two spaces during the brainstorming of her process.

Two of the four rooms Turk will occupy at the Laguna Art Museum show will be dedicated to her process -- mapping her creative journey and inspiration across the rooms, on the walls and throughout the spaces. She geeks out about theories of matter and connectivity between humankind and nature, and tracks different theories, understandings and exploration in science and art in these rooms. "It's about the emptiness of matter -- " Turk explains, "what is matter, physically and throughout time...So it takes you through gems, stones, calcium -- through its history. Kind of like an investigation, flowing people through the history of my inspiration with stone."

Elizabeth Turk cage.
Elizabeth Turk cage., by klxadm
Elizabeth Turk Ribbon
Elizabeth Turk Ribbon, by klxadm

Turk approaches her stonework from a place of inquisition and geology more than artistry in some ways. "All the stone I use is marble because it's human-like; it's life. I'm trying to find that vital link, and connect it to a larger dialogue without banging people over the head with it. It's just in the fabric of our humanity, and I'm sort of bringing it back a little bit here."

Though Turk's work is abstract, the theories and feelings that are explored during her process often shine through the finished product. The delicacy and meticulous sculptures touch on the fabric of life and history of our natural world, evoking deeper thought and contemplation on physical material as well as the relationship we have with the natural world. Turk's artwork has been a catalyst for many other artists to test the boundaries of their materials, and with this partnered exhibition with Lita Albuquerque, the investigative, theoretical and ethereal aspects of her work are made more powerful.

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