By Kevin Friedman; all art courtesy of Mick Turner on February 29, 2012
“Art” is the word that hovers over Dirty Three’s music like an aura—and not that elusive and easy tag pinned on something that one might appreciate but finds too challenging to enjoy. Rather, this art has to do with the expression of passion in the various mediums humans utilize to channel deeper sentiments. There is no mistaking what the Dirty Three do for anything else out there. Their sound—instrumental, melancholic and cinematic—fits under the hazy genre of “rock” only because of its emotionally cathartic energy. The unlikely makeup of violin, guitar and drums only adds to the allure.
Warren Ellis, the band’s violinist and primary melodicist, distorts his instrument in the manner of an electric guitar then wrings it out as though he were exorcizing its demons. Drummer Jim White doesn’t establish a beat so much as he skitters around one, his hits filling the air like Ping-Pong balls in a wind tunnel. Guitarist Mick Turner has perhaps the lowest profile in the band’s sound. His style is minimalistic and restrained compared to Ellis’ wailing leads. More than notes, Turner plucks ideas from his strings—conversation topics and themes around which White and Ellis expound. With no bassist, Turner’s parts are the frames over which the band’s canvases are stretched.
Turner’s art isn’t limited to the guitar. He is an internationally exhibited painter whose work has graced the covers of almost all of the Melbourne-based band’s albums. His paintings offer explosions of color and expressionistic, almost myth-like figures—fish, birds, women, kangaroos and horses in relatively stark surroundings—rendered with heavy brush strokes, the paint layered in canyons of texture. The humans in his paintings, eyes cyclopean and enlarged, show a direct influence from Picasso’s Guernica. Turner’s figures are set on roadsides, on the beach or in forests of naked trees. In FNQ1, a burgundy crocodile, the ridges on its nose like the branches of a tree, stares up from murky, teal-colored water spotted by lily pads that look like crystallized fossils of scorpions and jellyfish. Can We Go Out There depicts a golden-haired child standing in front of a sea roiling with white-capped waves. The water has begun to pool and slither onto the flame-red sand, snaking around the figure. On the horizon, the sky is grey with hints of amber light creating a sepia tint on patches of clouds.
On the cover of the band’s latest album, Toward the Low Sun, is Turner’s rendition of “St. George and the Dragon.” The beast has pinned England’s patron saint to the ground with its talons, yet George has pierced the dragon’s breast with a lance while raising a sword in his other hand. A moth with eyes on its wings hovers above, as do two blackbirds. A skeletal white dog sits behind them and the saint’s head leans against a dead white horse.
What does it all mean? What comes first, the music or the art? Here, Turner forgoes the wordless worlds of his band and paintings to discuss his art and music in the glow of the latest Dirty Three release and a recent exhibition of his work in Sydney.
What is your history as a painter? How does it compare with your history as a musician?
Mick Turner: I studied art and painting in high school. I started playing guitar when I was 15, and by 16 I was playing in a band. We had an all-ages gig at the local town hall playing covers of Elvis, the Stones, Chuck Berry and some ’60s garage stuff. We got sacked after I was caught drinking whiskey in between sets in the car park. It sucked anyway. My next band was a punk rock band and I was set free.
Coinciding with that time, 1976 or 1977, came punk rock. It felt and sounded great and alive and, more than anything, it was real and not fake. It brought me to realize that I wasn’t alone, and the way I saw the world and my creative wishes had merit. I have never, not for one moment, not been in a band since 1976.
In junior school, I used to draw my own comic books and mass-produce them. My mother was in charge of typing up and printing the church newsletter. This was done on special stencil paper that you put onto the machine and then inked up, put the paper in and turned the handle. You could type or draw straight onto the stencil paper. It was fantastic, and she, being the kind-hearted single parent she was, would let me do whatever I wanted on it and printed up this contraband.
Meanwhile at school, I’d discovered the art room. I started doing huge, colorful landscapes and abstracts. The aim wasn’t to achieve some arbitrary level of skill as much as to communicate and express a view of the world in a way you can’t do with words. It was very liberating.
When I was 44, with the encouragement of a friend, I had my first exhibition in a café in Melbourne. I followed a steep learning curve on technique and approach. I moved from acrylics to oils and other mediums such as bronze through to digital prints and photo frame pieces.
Can you discuss your technique?
Recently, I felt that using brushes was making my work too neat so I started using my fingers instead. This was great until someone told me how toxic oil paints are due to heavy metals that absorb through your skin, so now I use a combination of brush and surgical gloves. I rarely do studies before a painting and I often change paintings even after they have been shown in an exhibition—sometimes subtly, sometimes completely. I have a large studio room and usually have a number of works in process at any time hanging around on the walls, so I can think about what needs doing on them even when I’m working on another piece, which allows me to easily move on when I get stuck.
The subjects of your work are often birds, dogs, people, animals and fish. What leads you to make these choices in imagery?
I use these figures as symbolism. Often they’re spiritual figures. Often they’re representing a part of myself. The horses mostly symbolize escape or change. I have done a lot of kangaroos—you might think they’re dogs. Living overseas sharpened my sense of where I was from—the fauna and flora, the earth and the sky of Australia and, more particularly, the Victorian coastal landscapes—and how that sense fills my being. And fish? I love the ocean; it’s a spiritual thing like art and music. The great Pacific Ocean is an almighty god.
What are some of your primary influences?
Medieval religious art; Australian artists like Charles Blackman, John Perceval, Sidney Nolan and the Boyds; European Impressionists and Post-Impressionists; Mexican folk art; Picasso; comic-book artist Mark Beyer; naive art; homemade restaurant mural art; and my friends.
Can you talk about the latest Dirty Three album?
For us, making a new recording is a very imperfect art. We’ve spent our whole career trying to conquer it. When the particular energy of the three of us gels, it lifts the Dirty Three above the ordinary. We feel it when it happens but it’s abstract and you can’t explain it. Every time we record we try to capture it. This record captures more of that than earlier albums may have.
When going into a new album, what is the band’s process?
Write ideas separately. Develop and do rough demos separately. Arrange a time for the three of us to be in the same place for at least 10 days. Show up and present ideas. Talk. Work. Argue. Work. Demo. Run away. Listen. Sometime later, arrange a time to be in the same place for at least 10 days. Show up, review and present any new ideas. Argue. Work. Talk. Argue. Work. Record album. Mix. Argue. Make up. Pat each other on the back. F
Artwork, as it appears: St George; Whatever You Love, You Are; Durras
For more on Mick Turner's art, visit MickTurner.com