The Old Ballpark,
2003, o/c, 60 x 72".
Study for Steamtrain,
2003, o/c, 20 x 24".
Field, 2003, o/c, 36 x 48".
Stadium, 2003, o/c, 48 x 60".
||Change is brewing in Ray Turners newest paintings. You can read it in the shifting light of the glorious skies he paints. But its strongest in the deep shadows that lie beneath them; in vistas chilled for lack of sunlight, in blurred steam engines churning through heavy mist and in brooding nighttime baseball stadiums.
For years Turner has used romanticisms language of expressive landscapes, majestic skies and cities or trains pressing into wilderness to evoke the force of the American spirit. His use of landscape to envision national character follows in the footsteps of early romantic painters like Frederic Church, who painted this continents unique grandeur and primal landscape to evoke sentiments of divinely ordained Manifest Destiny and civilizing progress over wild nature. Unlike Church however, Turners paintings feel less like visual doctrines than personal ruminations.
Turners paintings often present vistas where the land, the sky and civilization meet. This time out, however, they are borderlands where boundaries are growing increasingly indistinct and light doesnt travel far. In Study for Steamtrain, the earths horizon is a dark, vaguely train-shaped blur erupting fiery steam like a painterly volcano. As if caught between earth and sky as well as day and night the engine presses forward, its steam dividing a turbulent deep blue night from a placid waning sunset. Hot orange reflections from the firebox run alongside like ribbons of magma glowing from beneath the black earths crust.
Turner paints beautifully and his mergers of bright, painterly heavens with rich darkened earth make compelling use of iconic symbols of American identity. Most of the paintings in this show feature baseball diamonds. Those brick dust theatres of all-American sport where the nations character shaping dynamics of competition and fair play are nostalgically celebrated.
|For all those associations, however, Turners baseball stadiums are ambiguous sites. Small, shrinking patches of quick, vivid color, they often glow--as in The Old Ball Park--like fragile embers against a dense, all-encompassing darkness. Above these reddened playing fields, he then paints a broad stretch of cloud-filled sky, bright with light that oddly never touches the ground. His skies pale illumination makes you wonder if the spotlight trick of color on the ground beneath it is natural or mystical, a signal of sunsets end, dawns beginning, or perhaps a threat more metaphoric than an impending spring storm. The staying power of these images lies in that uncertainty and the way the warm game fields, cold darkness and dynamic skies summon alternating feelings of comfort and impending change; a change that seems at one moment cataclysmic and at another as natural as night falling.
Given baseballs social and historic connections to this nations spirit and psyche, its hard not to read Turners baseball diamond oasis-in-the-dark as metaphor. Even as images like the Catchers Mitt and Yankee Stadium reveal the artists abiding affection for the game, his more abstract landscape images suggest these images are more than a bundle of warm memories.
In baseball, America yearns for its past, for the simple nobility represented by the sport. As the nation wades into burning oil fields and murky international battlegrounds, there are strong visual echoes in the way the artist pictures the games red dust fields burning in the dark. Just at their illuminated edge there always creeps a deep and unsettling void of smoky darkness. Its an unsettling haze of blankness that spreads out across the land, absorbing light, trees and architecture, even churning the heavens into a deep blue turbulence at the horizon. With the baseball diamonds brightness Turner pits the glowing ideals of sportsmanship and decency against the surrounding darkness. Its a gesture alive with hope but one we are forced to admit looks endangered. Like spectators at a game we sit watching the field, waiting to see who will win, and rooting for the home team.