Age of Steam: Ray Turner at Diane Nelson Fine Art

October 1998|Rick Gilbert

An Impressive sequence of new paintings by Ray Turner goes up this week at Diane Nelson Fine Art In Laguna Beach. Comprised of highly atmospheric railroad stills and architectural vignettes. these works carry forward a strain of Anglo-American lyrical realism which harks back more than a century and a half.

Allying sleek brushwork with subdued hues and tenebrist toning. Turner modulates dualities or light and shadow, horizontal and vertical, and solid and gas. While exploring thematic polarities of arrival and departure, conveyor and conveyance, and dynamic and static in a dream-fueled ferment of industrial romance. In this mythic, archetypal terrain, trains represent the dynamic principle, while buildings, trestles, lowers, and archways stand for the static. It is a terrain with only two occupants: monuments and events.

Each time a locomotive fleetingly manifests in one of Turner’s canvases, it’s as if it were an occasion awaited forever. A few quivering moments on a bridge or at the mouth of a tunnel form the seminal event of the day; everything else is as if In abeyance, so that the train seems to be cradled in the massive palm of some terrene demiurge, and all senses, keenly alert, focus single-mlndedly on its sudden advent.

Though there is a pronounced consciousness of duration in these works, there are only two times of day — dawn and dusk: and one season — a perpetual late autumn. With luscious coloration and subtle, satiny texturlng, Turner achieves a sumptuous, almost confectionary glazing that makes his surfaces look edible, muting and transmuting the ordinarily raw-edged harshness of switching yards and densely clustered vintage skyscrapers into something softly scented with glamour and nostalgia.

Turner’s oeuvre clearly has its origins in American pictorial realism of the thirties and forties, but also mirrors that of his own contemporary Richard Bunkall, the friend and colleague whose own brand of dark. mystico-gothic realism bears an American allegorist sensibility which traces as far back as Abbott Thayer and Ellhu Vedder. The soaring perpendiculars of Turner’s arches, bridge supports, overpasses, and portals blend with the mezzotint melancholy of warehouse scenes In stark moodscapes reminiscent of the Ashcan School and Edward Hopper.

Incisive perspective is another hallmark of Turner’s compositions. This artist specializes in dramatic angles, coaxing the viewer’s eye to maneuver among the intricate canyons of both train-traversed countryside and vertiginous urban labyrinths. Entering the City, for example, combines Turner’s signature train and structural treatments: a looming viaduct in the foreground frames a second viaduct behind at the same time as it is compartmentalized into geometric sub-sets of crepuscular wedges and rhomboids whose repeating contours set up an entourage of visual echoes. The structures seen in Dawn: Six Steps; and Passage, with their mazy well-shafts of attenuated chroma, their converging planes, and clusters of simple shapes — circles, squares, triangles, and parallelograms — are woven into shadow-faceted miscellanies of fluctuating volumes. Turner’s pylons and columned edifices are glum memorials to a bygone era of which the only remnants are vestiges and vapors. Temples of forlornity, pregnant with oblique significance, they are wan repositories of the forsaken and the forgotten, whose portentous recesses hum with gravity-laden presence.

Bearing an unmistakable similarity to the nineteenth century Rain, Steam and Speed, a train painting by another Turner (Joseph Mallord William), who was fond of architecture and transportation themes, Ray Turner’s rail pictures capture streaking streamliners in matrix habitatus — not mere specimens speared on the tips of pins, but generic trains-in-process, a harmonious and integral part of a grand mechano-natural scheme, as inseparable from their surroundings as their surroundings are from them. Perhaps because it is a re-configuration of the age-old image of the caravan traversing endless desert wastes, some elemental chord is struck in the human psyche by the procession of a train. In Turner’s blueprint, it’s often just the nose or the tail of the train that’s seen, and the train is an arrow sliding back and forth on a scale of glacial transpiration. In a ballet of entrances and exits, emergences and disappearances, Turner’s trains either chug ponderously up ladders of gradation already ratcheting away from them, or flee exposed spaces like controlled blurs. Mysterious and mercurial messengers, distillations of pure metallic energy, the trains hypnotically enact a frantic round of alarums and excursions, like sleepwalkers toeing tightropes.

When, In River Crossing, a majestic locomotive sprints across a gorge cupped by a steep bowl of brown and blue mountains whose sides are rendered in Whistlerian washes a la Nocturne In Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge (but not so murky). It is a “privileged instant”, when a vesperal hush has swallowed the planet, and the mountains follow the train’s passage with the eyes of Argus.

These trains and their complimentary structures do not inhabit the gritty underbelly of some cyclopean metropolitan hub, but an imaginary dimension where they act out their own reality eternally, immune from the elapse of time.