Lately, Turiya Adkins has been flirting with the void — the void as in total aesthetic free fall, as in pleading the fifth, as in losing the plot entirely, as in a complete refusal to be narrowly understood. The void as in pure abstraction.
At the age of 11, the artist’s science teacher showed her class a video of Olympian Mike Powell cascading through the sky as he broke the long-jump world record. Her teacher’s intention was to demonstrate the concept of velocity, but what he neglected to mention, and what Adkins internalized from this lesson, is that Black people have long defied gravity, that our existence has long depended on our uncanny capacity for flight. In conversation, Adkins noted: “It was the first time I was introduced to that kind of record-breaking quality, wherein Powell not only beat everyone else, but also himself. I knew what I was seeing was the most literal reflection of Black triumphance.” Where Powell used his musculoskeletal ability to ascend, Adkins picked up a brush.
Taking as source material the legacy of Black track and field athletes, the history of the Great Migration, and contemporary examples of Black fugitivity (concerted acts of literal or metaphorical escape that challenge normative notions of power, ownership, and citizenship), Adkins is invested in illuminating the poetic nature of Black subjects in motion. Until recently, her paintings featured refracted images of Black runners amid sprawling, gestural compositions. Drawing her eyes to the top left corner of her studio, she mused lyrically about how the presence of the physical body offers her audience a visual anchor. As of late, however, she’s grown suspicious of her compulsion to render recognizable forms and is becoming more interested in a mode of pure abstraction that places her audience on a perceptual back foot.
“Pure abstraction allows for an open mode of interpretation. It brings you on a more spiraling path and where you end up isn’t guaranteed to be the same as where other viewers end up. Similarly, you can look at it one week, return to the work at a different point, and come away with a renewed interpretation. So, abstraction lends itself to a more amorphous means of understanding,” she told me. Put differently, she’s invested in using the absence of the physical form to inspire boundless speculation on behalf of the viewer. In denying onlookers a body on which to “land” their eyes, Adkins assumes a more disobedient flight path — one that eschews the comfort of an easy interpretation and embraces, instead, an ecstatic sense of suspension.
As is the case for any aesthetic and conceptual departure, her new mode of working reflects a series of internal revolutions, strung together through the process of learning to unequivocally trust her own hand and, further, to find gratification in an unabashed painterly confidence — which might also be described as a willingness to refuse the project of “making sense.” To this end, she notes: “Abandoning that feeling of familiarity in a figurative image allowed me to rely more on my mark making as a language.” Undoubtedly, Adkins has developed an unshakable faith that the visual chorus surging from her hands will manifest into an image that, even in the absence of a physical body, approximates what it feels like to, as Powell did, take flight. Ultimately, her work is an invitation to inhabit the ether and to embody the indeterminacy as Blackness itself.