Red Mars & the Fictional Artist

Adam Turl with his installation "Red Mars" at the Kemper Art Museum. Photo: James Byard/Washington University.

Posted by Liam Otten June 30, 2016


A shopping cart sports military hardware.

An armed man smirks in short sleeves and space helmet.

The Venus of Willendorf towers above the hammer and sickle.

The paintings of Adam Turl climb the walls like a rocket hitting exit velocity—an image slyly reinforced by the telescope at their base. Yet the paintings of Adam Turl are not the paintings of Adam Turl. Rather, they are the paintings of Alex Pullman, a Mars-gazing visionary from the year 2042, who has traveled back in time to supplant the earlier artist.

Such is the premise of Red Mars, a series of multimedia paintings (and accompanying chapbook) now on view as part of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum's annual MFA Thesis Exhibition.

"Creating a fictional character allows you to be honest," said (the real) Adam Turl, a 2016 graduate of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. It sidesteps romantic notions about the supposed purity of artistic expression, while also "reasserting the idea that individuals are important, valuable, and not interchangeable. The fictional artist disrupts our residual cynicism."

In many ways, Red Mars represents an exercise in classic world-building. The story centers on Pullman, an increasingly desperate Illinois native who, from his back porch outside Carbondale, observes the future of Mars colonization and its subsequent descent into chaos. Yet the narrative—which Turl first conceived as a sort of epic poem—is fragmentary and elliptical, a dreamlike negotiation between "collective mythology and subjective spiritual experience."

"There's a shamanistic element to all art," Turl said. "We're told that the world is what it is, that it can't be anything else. But there are alternatives. They might not work, terrible things might happen...But alternatives can be imagined.

"This world isn't the way things have to be."

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