Just when selectivity (with a little help from Photoshop), is enabling millions of people to offer up their “best side” on Facebook, Ray Turner’s newest series of portraits, “GoodManBadMan,” compels us to exam our propensity to judge one another by attributes such as the shape of our nose, the color of our skin or the cut of our hair. Curator Peter Frank applauds the intensity of Turner’s portraits and the artist’s deduction that our prejudices “derive from our facial preoccupation, our need to compare one face with another in order to determine everything from superficial beauty to the nature of the soul.”
Noted early on for his brooding, neo-romantic landscapes, dramatized with captivating touches of light and color, a chance meeting with Joe, a brilliant but poorly educated laborer deepened into friendship. Turner was compelled to apply lessons learned in landscape painting to portraiture. Over the last years of Joe’s life, the ninety-six year old man’s face became the focus of countless studies by Turner. After Joe died, the painter continued his attempts to effectively define and hold on to his dear friend’s inner character from memory.
Like Don Bachardy, Catherine Opie and other contemporary portrait artists intent on honing their skills while seeking to define their practice, Turner initially enlisted friends and acquaintances to sit for him as he perfected the color-ground relationships that connected him to the people he painted. When he widened his pool of subjects, Turner’s efforts gelled. His exhibition at the Pasadena Museum last year, “Population,” was a predecessor to the groupings of sensational multicolored 12 x 12 inch portraits exhibited here. Each face is as deliciously beautiful as anything ever cooked up by Wayne Thiebaud.
One key to the success of his work is Turner’s ability to effectively paint on glass. Not without it’s constraints, the artist concedes that “you have to apply generous, confident amounts of paint or it won’t work.”
The role of Turner’s use of a conscientiously selected variety of flat colors, from warm to cool, applied as a backing to the glass in “Population” (and directly to the wall in this exhibition) is key to the cumulative impact of the numerous small paintings. In a review of the show last year Roberta Carasso concluded that when the portraits are configured in a variety of combinations, “the relationship of each distinct and restrained tonal background to other backgrounds instantly interlocks portrait to portrait, and affects the special affinity between them.”
Of course the flat backgrounds, like Turner’s erasure of any tattoos his subjects might be sporting, eliminate contextual clues that could prompt viewers to pre-judge his subjects. Also affected are spatial relationships. The offset between subject and background gives each portrait breathing room, casting shadows set in motion as viewers shift position in front of the work. More importantly, the backing suggests a mirrored surface, rich with associations including the implied capacity to reflect back onto the portrait the artist’s and viewer’s persona. This, hand in hand with Turner’s decision to replace his reliance on live models with photographs, allows the artist to “be free of that obligation to represent a likeness. This approach gives free rein to thoughts and feelings and facilitates psychological exploration.”
What Turner can do with that freedom is no more apparent than in the nervy, elongated heads that dominate this show. Here the artist drains background color down to muted silvery grays, emphasizing vigorous textural elements and startling contrast between dark and light that dramatize the newest work. African masks worn in rituals designed to empower could not be more compelling than the mysterious forces Turner evokes by stripping away everything other than the essentials.
Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2011