Art New Mexico: Shawn Turung

Like many artists who work in mixed media, Shawn Turung is difficult to neatly categorize. She paints with a muralist’s sensibility, constructing a vertical narrative within the architectural space the work inhabits. She deliberately works toward the edge of chaos, pushing painting to behave more like sculpture, and fluid ink brush painting to imitate the stylized forms of graffiti. - Diana Gaston, New Mexico Contributor

Shawn Turung | Wayfinder installation
, 2016, mixed media: Sumi Ink, latex house paint, adhesive and plaster on composite board, 8.5 x 10 feet x 2.5 inches

I recently visited her Albuquerque studio in the Harwood Art Center, a converted school building which houses studio spaces and an ambitious arts program. She has one of the coveted upper level studios with tall wood-framed windows, an indication of her long commitment to the art community here.

Turung upends a formal balance by tipping her canvases at precarious angles, building assemblages of collected debris, and concentrating focus along the edges or in the extreme corners, where the work finds its genesis or its stasis. Her line is as distinct and decisive as that of a graffiti artist. Rhythmic marks in black ink and subtle white washes suggest a near language, and are inspired by the forms of Korean writing. This elegant system of mark making often extends beyond the edges of the canvas onto the wall itself, or asserts itself across the surface of her finished paintings, as though she has tagged her own work. This line is what holds the complex structures together. 

Shawn Turung | Based On A True Story, 2016, porcelain, Legos, stained wood, oil, gouache, Sumi Ink, house paint, blue jeans, plaster and metal leaf, 18 feet x 9.25 feet x 5.5 inches 

She works across media very easily, often incorporating Sumi ink, printer’s ink, house paint, gouache, plaster, porcelain, and found materials, all in the space of a single work. Turung received her training from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and additional training in historic restoration, which explains her confidence with so many materials. The prevalence of found objects in her work conveys her delight in repurposing materials, and also a kind of intellectual exchange with the found object, riffing on its function and history. In one piece, still in process at the time of my visit, she was busy transforming reclaimed tires into a series of segmented circles that seemed to intersect the wall. Many of her paintings incorporate hand-shaped porcelain forms in the spaces between the stacked canvases. The assemblage of ceramic and other bits of found materials are almost tucked in, awaiting discovery; something about the presentation feels as poignant as the trinkets left in the hollow of a tree for Scout & Jem to find in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Shawn Turung |Your Highness, 2015, House paint, gouache, plaster, Sumi ink, printer's ink, 53 x 14 x 2.75 inches

Deciphering her tightly packed paintings that dip in and out of narrative and abstraction seems to traverse broad stretches of time. There is a kind of medieval heraldry at the core of her luminous gold and blue figurative passages that gives way to her own controlled, graffiti-like script of black and white forms. She embeds her exquisite painting in a coarse language of assemblage and a bold graphic style. Viewing her work is like being in the company of an old soul who has more than a few lifetimes of painting and technique at her disposal.


Diana Gaston is the Director of Tamarind Institute, a division of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico. She previously served as Lead Curator of the Fidelity Investments Corporate Art Collection in Boston.


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