Age of Steam Trainscapes by Ray Turner Diane Nelson Fine Art

October 1998|G. Alter-Gilbert

An impressive sequence of new paintings by Ray Turner goes up this week at Diane Nelson Fine Art in Laguna Beach. Comprised of railroad idylls and architectural vignettes, these works reflect a strain of Anglo-American lyrical realism that harks back more than a century and a half. Combining sleek brushwork, subdued hues and tenebrist toning, Turner modulates dualities of light and shadow, horizontal and vertical. and solid and gas. He depicts arrival and departure, conveyor and conveyance, and dynamic and static. In this terrain, trains represent the principle while buildings, trestles, towers, and archways represent the static. It is a terrain with only two occupants: monuments and events.

Each time a locomotive shows itself in one of Turner’s canvases, it’s as if it were an occasion forever awaited. 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 terrain and all senses focus solely on its sudden arrival.

With luscious coloration and subtle, satiny texturing, Turner makes his surfaces look edible. He mutes the harshness of switching yards and densely clustered skyscrapers into something softly scented with glamour and nostalgia.

Turner’s oeuvre has its origins in American pictorial realism of the ‘30s and ’40s, but also mirrors that of his contemporary, Richard Bunkall, whose own brand of dark realism traces as far back as Abbott Thayer and Elihu Vedder.

Incisive perspective is another hallmark of Turner’s compositions. He specializes in dramatic angles, coaxing the viewer to look at the countryside and urban canyons. “Entering the City”, for example, combines Turner’s train and structural elements: a viaduct in the foreground frames a second viaduct behind, at the same time as it is separated into geometric sub- sets. The structures and shapes seen in “Dawn”; “Six Steps”; and “Passage” are woven into shadow-faceted miscellanies. Turner’s pylons and columned edifices are memorials to a bygone era. Temples of forlornity, they are wan repositories of the forsaken and the forgotten, whose portentious recesses hum.

Bearing an unmistakable similarity to the nineteenth-century “Rain, Steam and Speed”, a train painting by another Turner (Joseph Mallord William), Ray Turner’s pictures capture streamliners in various places: His trains-in-process reflect a harmonious and integral part of a grand mechano-natural scheme.

In Turner’s blueprint, often just the nose or the tail of the train that can be seen, and the train is an arrow sliding back and forth. In a ballet of entrances and exits, Turner’s trains either chug up ladders of gradation, or flee exposed spaces.

The trains, messengers made of metallic energy, hypnotically enact a frantic round of alarums and excursions. These trains and their structures inhabit an imaginary dimension, where they eternally act out their own reality, immune from the lapse of time.