Industrial Age Commemorated on Canvas

March 5, 1999|Rick Gilbert

Beyond a pair of anonymous corrugated metal doors fronting along a nondescript alley in a light industrial section of Old Monrovia, looms a private world to which the visitor feels transported as if by time machine.

This is the mythic, mid-century America of artist Ray Turner, whose paintings of streaking vintage trains and gritty, Gothic cities commemorate the power and glory of a bygone nation at the height of its industrial might and expansion.

Striding panther-like among the comers of his dark, cavernous studio, Turner assessed the status of canvases and discusses what finishing touches win be added to render them complete. Turner, who moved to the area in 1982 to attend Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, began teaching there following his graduation three years later.

Around this time, he said, his own move west spawned a concern with the high period of American industrial expansion of roughly 1910—1860 He started to paint rural landscapes in and around Highland Park with the skyline of Los Angeles to the distance, then progressed to landscapes bearing gradually greater evidence of the presence of man or civilization, and finally became obsessed with the idea of man’s encroachment on the environment. This, he continued, is how he came to regularly depict trains, railroad yards and adjunct structures and, eventually, full-blown cityscapes eclipsing the trains.

Turner’s past work has involved horse and race track themes, interpretive portraiture, and studies of old-time baseball parks and players colored by what can only be described as a mystical and reverential approach of the same sort characterizing the baseball films “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural.” However, he seems to have found his forte in his depictions of this “lost world” of surging locomotives, rain-mottled trestles, time-worn warehouses, signal towers steam-wreathed roundhouses, smoke stacks and factory chimneys, gigantic bridge supports, and proto-skyscrapers. In “Entering me City,” Turner’s new show at the Mendenhall Gallery in Pasadena, 15 paintings —five train studies, five cityscapes, and five combo pieces — commemorate the mythic past With titles such as “Black Bridge,” “Runaway Train’’ and ”Beneath the City,” these pictures offer bird’s-eye views of solemn monuments, somber, subterranean switching yards and leviathan vehicles rampaging with all the fury of infuriated dinosaurs.

Turner’s works are not merely slickly realistic illustrations of their subject matter, they are complex, impressionistic and, as such, multidimensional. Coming upon a Turner canvas is like stumbling into a cave, which to suddenly lighted by a torch. Turner’s elongated shadows evoke melancholy and a disquieting sense of nostalgia, while his virtuoso brushwork and coloration imbue his surfaces with such a glamorous sheen that it can almost be called a crust.

er manages to make his images look both real and unreal simultaneously. A master cosmetician, his methods of applying pigment enable him to handle clouds, smoke, and haze incomparably, and capture qualities that photographic realism cannot duplicate.

Unlike mere illustration where everything is immaculate and unblemished as a shiny new car, Turner’s subjects wear with pride a patina of dirt and grease; his tints resemble a box of chocolates dumped out and squished around to reveal shades of nougat, layers of caramel, secret sediments of confectionary color. His images seem to emerge Nostradamus-like from a mist inside a crystal ball; they are shimmering dream-pictures summoned forth from me other side of the mirror.

Beyond demonstrating such technical prowess. Turner’s works bear a message. About this, the artist said: “I’ve tried to convey in these works the strength of industry and the work ethic, and the human drive to build civilization and wealth; in the not too distant past everyone was working toward building a loftier world; there was an idealism abroad in the land, which has been all but lost today. The sound of a train whistle blowing in the distance can be said to symbolize this — not only the brawn and sprawl of a robust and growing nation flexing its muscles, but the heartbeat and bloodlines of a body politic which has lost direction and is signaling to itself in the dark, groping and hoping to find its way.”

Mendenhall’s corner room has been consecrated as a “train room,” housing two large and three small train-related compositions both on canvas and on wood. Here, imperious locomotives lunge ominously through city and countryside alike, harboring objectives of their own, oblivious to their surroundings, and prompting the viewer to ask whether the trains serve civilization, or civilization simply serves as a backdrop far the trains. In the last analysis, Turner’s latest suite of paintings if a valedictory salute to a faded era. As in “The Last Game,” a ball park scene with tiny, ant-like figures, Turner shows us a worid that was thriving only 50 years ago, but has already receded into the shadows of history, reminding us of the sadness of the passage of time and giving us an eerie sense of looking at what has already become a lost civilization. Wth fervent affection, Turner has invoked a bittersweet climate of remembrance for a grimy Camelot, inspiring us to ponder whether King Arthur will come again.