Review: Devon Turnbull/OJAS at Lisson Gallery

Context is key.

The Lisson Gallery’s group show, The odds are good, the goods are odd, features the work of a number of contemporary sculptors including Leilah Babirye, Kristi Cavataro, Jes Fan, Doreen Lynette Garner, Hugh Hayden, Elizabeth Jaeger, Hannah Levy, Eli Ping, Jessi Reaves, Devon Turnbull (OJAS), and Kristin Walsh.

From the gallery:

The odds are good, the goods are odd is a group exhibition that highlights a new generation of New York-based sculptors. Bringing together artworks across a range of mediums, the presentation showcases the divergent ethos behind sculpture-making today. The featured artists favor the handmade, creating a spectrum of artworks that range from the polished and conceptual, to the raw and visceral.

I’ve been admiring the work of Hannah Levy, mostly from afar, so it was a real treat to see her taught tension-filled work that feels like they came from a trophy room of some unknown human hunter.

Doreen Lynette Garner

The most shocking works, by Doreen Lynette Garner, had a room of their own where glass, silicone, steel, epoxy putty, pearls, Swarovski crystals, and whiskey combine to form a horrific display reflecting on past and present patterns of medically sanctioned racial violence, focusing on medical experimentation on Black women’s bodies in the US.

Hugh Hayden’s Cypress equine sculpture

When it comes to art, you don’t really need to know anything about it or have a degree in it to walk into any gallery or museum and look. Of course, the more you know, the more context you bring to the experience, placing things like material choice and use within an ongoing historical story—a dialog between artists over time.

ceramic and blackened steel dioramas by Elizabeth Jaeger

To my mind, the meaning of a work of art exists between the work and the viewer. And this relationship can change over time, informed by experience and knowledge. I learned, many years ago in art school, that its best to approach new things with an open mind, to let them speak their particular language without forming judgments and without trying to fit everything into little boxes of familiar comfort. Doing so can help us experience things for what they are as opposed to what we think they should be.

photo credit: John DeVore

I’ve been admiring the work of Devon Turnbull/OJAS from afar for some time, mostly through the lens of friends. As is the case with a sculpture or painting, you haven’t experienced this work until you’ve experienced it—no photo or video can equal being there. So it was real anticipation and excitement that made the 60+ mile drive to the Lisson Gallery in Chelsea, the current beating heart of the art world, pass in a flash.

The listening room resides through those curtains.

Devon’s work for this exhibit is, on one level, a hifi system. It is also a sculpture and as Devon suggests, it is also a kind of performance art. Unlike most hifi’s, this is a one-of-a-kind, site specific work. Unlike every hifi ever made, this site specific work, this listening room, was made as part of a sculpture exhibit at the Lisson Gallery. I stress the obvious because context is key to deeper understanding, to a richer experience.

Every choice, each decision from the internal wire used, to chassis choice and method of construction, to the historical references were considered. This consideration is part of the OJAS ethos, an exceedingly cared for craft that informs every aspect of design and implementation. When something that functions as a hifi is placed in an art gallery among other forms of sculpture, a new dialog opens up for anyone interested in taking part.

On some level, the experience of listening to and being with this work was the fulfillment of a dream, a lifelong journey in search of a union of interests, one I didn’t really consider possible to this extent until yesterday’s visit to the Lisson Gallery.

And I thought of my father, the MSEE, and how our relationship largely flourished in and around listening to music on the hifi. A place where we shared our enjoyment of the art of music reproduction and of greater importance, the music itself and the people who made it, albeit from different perspectives, differing aspects of interest informed by his education and work as an electrical engineer, and my education and work as a visual artist.

These thoughts came over me like a wave as Devon played record after record from a collection of Tone Poet Blue Note LPs and a few from analog tape, protection copies made about 50 years ago to carry on from where the original 70-year old tapes would eventually leave off, slowly morphing into decay. It was in the listening, which was among the most moving and enriching experiences I’ve had, where the seemingly separate worlds of my father and mine merged in a more meaningful union.

The amplifiers in use are an hommage to Herb Reichert’s Flesh and Blood (the Reichert 300B) design, first shared in Joe Robert’s Sound Practices magazine in the Winter 1994/95 edition.

I have complete sets of Sound Practices and Art Dudley’s Listener

Herb’s piece begins:

The light from the streetlights mixes with the glow of the bright emitters in my listening room. Nyiregyhazi plays Liszt in front of me and my skin seems electric but I am completely relaxed. I let out my breath and my pulse is near flatline. Audio can really be good to us… if we let it. This is why we must seek to create and explore the frontiers of audio. This is why many of you build your own audio equipment.

An hommage because Devon used Herb’s circuit design as a starting point, as an inspiration for this interpretation. Every design choice, from the Western Electric No. 19 flat resistors you see standing proud behind the WE 300Bs, to the internal wire, to the lovely hammertone finish are, in this context, akin to the silicone, steel, and pearls in some of the other works on display. All of Devon’s references in form and function speak to a living breathing historic hifi community and culture.

The bass cabinet houses the massive and kinda mad Fostex 31.5″ Super Woofer, looking like something off Fritz Lang’s Metropolis set, all ribbed industry and purpose. John DeVore pictured for scale (he’s really tall).

I’m going to leave the technical details to Devon as he explains them in Steve Guttenberg’s, aka The Audiophiliac, wonderful video interview:

The last thing I want to do is cover this work as if its part of a hifi show. Because it’s not. If you find yourself wondering about aspects of reproduction, does that low table holding up the electronics and turntable interfere with the sound?, or how you couldn’t live with wires running over the floor, you’re missing the point.

What I will say is the OJAS system at the Lisson Gallery energized the very large room it inhabited, as if every last inch of space was part of the work, a living breathing presence that brought Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, among others, hovering in air as real as the polished steel and stretched silicon of Hannah Levy’s sculpture. Music is among the deepest expressions of our shared humanity and honoring its reproduction is, to my mind, one of the most essential marriages of art and science.

I began my reviewing career writing about low-powered tube-based amps, high sensitivity speakers, and pursuing hifi that existed, at the time, well off the well-trodden audiophile path. A very large piece of my inspiration for this interest was formed by reading writers like Herb Reichert and Art Dudley, who were also present in my heart and mind at the Lisson Gallery, helping to inform my experience, helping to put this wonderful and inspiring work of Devon Turnbull into a larger and more meaningful context.

photo credit: John DeVore

The odds are good, the goods are odd is on display at the Lisson Gallery, 504 West 24th Street, New York, from 29 June – 5 August 2022.

OJAS incense holder (sweeeet!)

You can see more of Devon’s HiFi work at