Ray Turner: PÖP YE-L’ SHEN

October 2009|John Carver

Human connection is the purpose of art. Communication, expression, ideation — they all add up and pare down to connection. The academic can define art as a site for the creation of cultural meaning, but culture is whatever connects people, and meaning is always contingent, socially contextual, and primarily a human habit. If a meaning flings itself into the forest and nobody is there to get it then it isn’t really meaningful at all. Rocks and trees are blessed with not needing to be meaningful to be, but humans have no such luck. Absolutely vital for our survival is the need to mean something to somebody and/or to the culture at large.

Ray Turner’s ongoing portrait project grasps these fundamental realities and fleshes them out in oil paint in a wondrously pleasant way. Absolutely straightforward and simple in conception, this show shines in the details of content. Each head is painted on a twelve-inch square of glass mounted on a flatly painted wood panel. The beauty of this technique is that the portraits exist against flat “pop art” grounds that, no matter how bright, remain seated behind the sitter. The virtue of the glass as surface is that Turner can easily wipe away the wet paint at the edges of each head, and since the glass will go over one of his color swatch panels he is freed to concentrate on portraiture, capturing a likeness, the volume of the form, rather than worrying about how to integrate the face with the background. The result is a series of images that are both timeless and completely particular. Turner is best known for his landscape work, and in a sense these strong images are topographies of the visage. Add a remarkable painterly technique and an intense sense of intimacy and individualism that emanates from each image and you’ve got a wall.