by Elenore Welles
(Huntington Beach Art Center, Orange County) American Orientalism is a designation used by Asian artists to describe the melding of cultural influences from East and West. It's a term that particularly suits Richard Turner's multimedia explorations. Turner is an American who lived in Vietnam as a teenager and spent time in India and Taiwan. The Asian influence continues to remain grist for his artistic mill.
"Should a Beatnik Drink a Martini?" includes a broad range of works from the past ten years. It includes sculptures, paintings and drawings that are drawn from both his public works and his studio art. Included also are written narratives, both real and imagined. Turner is a writer and a teacher of Asian art history and sculpture. His interests run a multi- faceted gamut which includes literature, architecture, gardening, and Chinese painting. By dipping into this deep well of resources, he comes up with an unusual artistic mix of ethnic, geographic and psychological diversity.
Intermingling past and present, he shuttles between East and West, irreverently skewering fixed canons from both realms. Turner blends his multi-cultural approach with a freewheeling use of appropriation. The result of this schizophrenic mixture is an unusual amalgamate of cultural myths and images.
Artists borrowing and appropriating from diverse cultures has a long history. The art of the Symbolists, for example, was infused with Eastern myths. But Turner's actual experiences with Asian culture have created schisms that result in a unique fusion of images. As a resident in Asia, yet an outsider, Turner experienced the double sense of participation and separation. He taps into an essential core of beauty found in Asian art; a purity of line that blends easily with Western esthetics. But Eastern artistic in tent differs greatly from the West. Gods in Asian art, for example, are supposed to radiate spiritual power. Seeking to establish an ideological bridge between two worlds, Turner attempts to humanize sacred images by placing spiritual content within a sociological context. In Dish Walla, for example, he invokes the Hindu God Ganesha. Half human, half elephant, Ganesha is a patron of literature and an over comer of obstacles. Turner surrounds this icon with a bamboo satellite disk and a photo of the Rodney King beating. Not too subtly, he conveys how the media not only provides connections between cultures, but creates disjunctions as well.
Hail Jackie, Queen of America is a more oblique comment on how Western values infiltrate the East. Turner floats Oleg Casini sketches of Jackie Kennedy's wardrobe against a saffron background, a color often used in monk's robes. When Kennedy, a secular American goddess figure, visited India, she brought Western materialism into a land more used to sacred deities.
On a more universal level, Blue Murdered/Red Dog, evokes urban violence and decay. An ominous snarling dog with a blue vampire face is set against a black radiating aura. On the floor below, a stuffed dog stands on a pile of broken architectural elements. A collaborative effort with an Indian sign painter, the images are taken from Indian movie posters.
Woven through this tapestry of cultural interactions is the theme of sociological transitions in America during the 1950s and 1960s. The earlier period was exemplified by the liberating tendencies of the Beat Generation, hence the title of the show. In their efforts to break with stultifying social conditions, Beat artists and writers such as John Cage, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg explored Eastern philosophy, art and religions. Admiring their general state of rebelliousness, Turner evokes the era in His Floating Hair. In a series of ink sketches, he plays with stereotypical views of bearded artists, disheveled writers and bongo players.
If, as posited by Jung, myths are grounded in the unconscious, then Turner's cross-cultural references are a natural consequence. His art, in a sense, can be seen as cautionary tales; personal maneuverings through the murky terrain of ideological polarities. When writers appropriate, it's known as plagiarism. So I give credit to Joseph Campbell who said "the artist as a communicator of myths is a legitimate sociologist."