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Karen Turner: Why Do You Have To Be So Emotional?

I recently had the joy of chatting with Karen Turner about her latest series, "Why Do You Have To Be So Emotional?" This series - from which, as I’m writing this, just three pieces remain - delves deep into the societal regulation of women and gender minorities. Unlike her previous projects, though, this collection extends beyond exploring the physical form to encompass the policing of tone and emotion.

By Sophie Heatley | 04 Jul 2024

This isn’t to say Turner’s previous works don't venture into the emotional realms of her subjects; it’s a challenge not to engage in introspective viewings of her portraits that physically swell with individuality and character (despite purposely “containing” them within smaller canvases to present how society “boxes” women in). Rather, these new works directly ask viewers to evaluate the judgments and biases they may hold when it comes to emotional expression. For example, Turner pointed out, “Nowadays when a man cries it’s often seen as a sign of bravery, when a woman cries, it’s seen as hysterical.” 

Karen Turner: Why Do You Have To Be So Emotional?
You're Being Irrational by Karen Turner (oil on linen, 2024, 40 x 30 x 2 cm)

Portraits have always been Turner’s focus, driven by her fascination with how we mould our appearances, and in this case, our emotional expressivity, to fit societal expectations. Turner is known for celebrating larger female forms in her vivacious oil paintings, and commentaries on its right to take up space in a world that tries to constrain it. 

Despite the joyously outspoken nature of her pieces, Turner’s process is quietly refined and delicate, painting with only the smallest paintbrushes. This meticulous approach means her works often take months to complete. Turner sets Why Do You Have To Be So Emotional? apart from her earlier works, known for their slick white backgrounds and diligent detail, by using muted Miami pastels, sky blues, and candy-coloured hues. This choice is not merely experimental; the peachy palette serves as a contrasting backdrop to the dramatic expressions of her subjects, further illustrating the double standards placed on women regarding emotional expression.

Karen Turner: Why Do You Have To Be So Emotional?
Cheer Up by Karen Turner (oil on linen, 2024, 50 x 40 cm)

Although coloured, the backgrounds remain clear. Turner explains, “I just love the look of flesh next to clean linen and the intensity of the face and body against the backdrop. I also like to show my subjects away from any background as a reminder of how we judge people without any context. I want people to consider how this makes them feel.”

Despite the visceral anger and frustration emanating from works in the series, the pieces empower and uplift. Turner advocates for not just the exposure of women and larger bodies in the arts but the celebration—rather than the grotesque interpretations often seen in the works of artists like Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville. “I love their work! It’s just not the message I want to transmit.” Turner asserts, “I want my paintings to be about people saying, 'I don’t care what society thinks; this is what my body looks like, and I’m not going to hide.'”

Karen Turner: Why Do You Have To Be So Emotional?
Too Intense by Karen Turner (oil on linen, 2024, 50 x 40 cm)

Turner continues to invite viewers to not only question societal standards but also to celebrate individuality and authenticity. The series stands as a testament to her evolving artistry and commitment to challenging the presentation of women and their gloriously hysterical bodies in the arts and beyond. 

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