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Jeramy Turner Interviewed by Dorothy Cima

Deep in Brooklyn, New York, artist Jeramy Turner lives and paints in a modest one-bedroom apartment. Sleeping on a small cot, virtually the entire apartment has been converted to a studio, the bedroom into the painting area, the dining area into an art storage space. Rolls of large paintings, too big for the cramped apartment space, lean up in the corners of the storage room. Following are excerpts from a recent interview taken in the artists kitchen, the one place where we could comfortably sit and talk.

D.C.: Are these paintings of your dreams?

J.T.: Hardly. They are, first of all, extremely conscious. They are allegories for power relationships, for the state of the modern world, for a deepened understanding of history. And they stem from a political, rather than personal, vantage point.

DC: Are you trying to say they’re not about you? Art’s always about the artist in one way or another.

JT: No, not necessarily. That "truth" only came to be after WWII. For centuries before that, artists had an established political role in society, often as visual interpreters of events, like today’s photojournalists, and just as often as social critics and revolutionaries. Daumier, Goya, David are examples that you might actually have heard about. Then along came psychology and Freud and then the Cold War, and now you’ve got the entire history of revolutionary art forgotten about, virtually wiped out, and instead we’ve got this utterly ignorant concensus that artists never see beyond their own psyches.

DC: Well, but look at your paintings! I mean, you have a really weird way of interpreting things! Maybe you’re psychotic and you just don’t realize it.

JT: Actually, my mental health is in fine condition. It might amaze you, but there are some people in this world who’s vantage point is not all fluff and sunshine. People who have lived through, or are at least aware of, wars and oppression, for instance.

DC: Right. And they try to get over it, they try to see things from a positive point of view.

JT: Yes, and for some of us, a positive point of view does not include blind ignorance, but instead calls for knowledge and insight. And then, fighting back.

DC: So sitting around painting pictures is fighting back?

JT: Yes. It can be.

DC: Do you see what you’re doing as political propaganda?

JT: I would think that I go deeper than propaganda, that I bring to the surface more complexities, more ambiguities.

DC: Your violence and anger don’t seem ambiguous!

JT: If you look a bit more carefully, you might see more than simply violence and anger. You might also see sadness, and gentleness, and (even) beauty.

DC: Well, the colors are nice, I admit that. But some of your images are so gruesome...

JT: It’s a gruesome world we live in, as often as not. And my pictures are not actually that repulsive. What gets to you, I believe, is the contradiction that emerges: beautiful colors, lovely flowing movement, gentle facial expressions; and then: horrifying ideas, shocking ideas. There are really very few depictions of blood or guts.

DC: But why dwell on the negative? Shouldn’t art be uplifting? To take people to a better place, give them peace?

JT: Peace is an illusion. I am not interested in creating illusions. Exactly the opposite. My intent is to reveal the true nature of societal forces, to expose the fear that lurks in the oil industrialist’s heart, when he is in the process of destroying everything around him.

DC: Your villains are always men. Do you hate men?

JT: My villains, like my heroes, are symbolic representations, not portraits. The oil industrialist, the warmonger, the businessman, the patriarch — none of them are portraits of actual individuals. They are composites of physical characteristics these men in positions of power have in common. You might notice, if you pay attention to this sort of thing, that these positions of power tend to be filled by white men. To ask if I hate men or not is to totally miss the point.

DC: Maybe I’m missing the point, but, do you?

JT: Would you ask Picasso if he hated women? Probably you wouldn’t dare; it would seem a stupid question, even though his work is permeated throughout by images of women cut to pieces, made monstrous. Let me tell you a story, about me and man-hating.

DC: Great! Radical lesbian confessional!

JT: Sorry to disappoint you, but this story is about the interpretation of my art. A few years ago, I was asked to put a piece in a show at the Brecht Forum, which is the Marxist School of the New School for Social Research in NYC. I assume you’ve never heard of it. The exhibition was curated by a committee of Haitian young men, who were themselves artists and Marxists. I selected a piece for the show, which I thought most appropriate, for its political simplicity and clarity. They did acquiesce to hanging the piece, but not without condemnation: the painting, they determined, was quintessential man-hating. Now here we had a few "politically aware" young black men from perhaps the most oppressed country on the globe, interpreting a crystal clear depiction of imperialism as generic MEN (even though they’re white and in suits carrying crosses, etc.) abusing a poor innocent WOMAN, symbolized, in their eyes, by the bird. Without consulting the artist, they condemned this work as sexist bigotry. They were more willing to join identities with the white suits than they were with the female artist.

DC: But why don’t you ever do them as women? Margaret Thatcher types, for instance.

JT: Because, as I said, I don’t paint portraits. And actually, I have painted evil looking women, now and again. But most often the women are the heroines, as are the animals.

DC: So what’s with the animals? Are you a vegetarian?

JT: The animals are more metaphors than symbols. In some cases they appear to be innocent victims, but at the same time they are engaging in survival tactics. At other times they represent a wisdom and perception that puts the oil industrialists to shame. As far as they are symbolic, it is never in a direct, one-to-one way. They are forms of intelligence, not necessarily anything more specific or tangible. The animals can be victims, but simultaneously they represent the wisdom that will always evade those who are in control. I eat meat and I don’t recycle. Nor do I vote.

DC: That seems kind of hypocritical! You want to change the world, you want to make the world a better place, but you don’t even do what little you can to improve things. What is your agenda?

JT: My agenda is to facilitate my painting as much as is humanly possible before I die. As much and as large a possible. And that’s all. I am not a political activist, I have no solutions beyond making the most of what we have in front of us, devoid of illusion, and living bravely and brazenly.

DC: Well, your paintings are certainly large. Don’t you ever do smaller work, maybe something I can hang in my living room?

JT: My characters would suffocate in small spaces! Do you think I would restrict myself like that to interior decorate? Of course you’re unfamiliar with the Mexican Mural Movement and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the creator of magnificent murals that reached proportions of over 2000 sq. meters. When he was in his ’60s, and by then an artist of worldwide acclaim, he was imprisoned for his politics and, though allowed to paint in his cell, was confined to canvasses no more than 60 x 80 cm. I’ll read to you a quote from his wife, Angelica: "Imagine, he’s a man who thinks in terms of very big walls, to be forced to make pictures no more than 60 x 80 cm. For a man like Siqueiros, such small pictures are a great punishment... So it was like double jail for him." I identify. Why on earth put yourself into a prison, willingly?

DC: So. You’re a size queen.

JT: One more thing about size: After the French Revolution when the bourgeoisie came to power, the enormous epic paintings of Jacques Louis David and others were shunned in favor of "salon" art — smaller and smaller paintings and mainly portraits. The passionate revolutionary themes of these incredible, heroic paintings were no longer in fashion.

DC: Thanks for the history lesson.

JT: I’m bringing this up to suggest the size limitation has its political origins in the ruling class’s ascension.

DC: So, from your commie-lesbo outlook, bigger is always better.

JT: With most everything.

DC: One last question. What drugs are you on?

JT: I’ll again refer to Siqueiros my hero, who said about drugs: "It disrupted our naturally rich and fertile imaginations." I feel the same way. Most essentially, I want to see what I am doing.

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