CLAYTON ON ART: Ray Turner is awesome

By Alec Clayton on November 20, 2012


As with the Andy Warhol exhibition at Tacoma Art Museum, there is much more to say about the Ray Turner exhibition at Museum of Glass than I can say in a single column.

There are a number of principles that I have often written about which are beautifully exemplified in this show.

The first of these is the idea, which should be apparent to anyone, that there is a huge difference between seeing reproductions of a work of art and seeing the real thing. I saw photographs of some of Turner's oil-on-glass portraits, and my thought was: these are not bad. Then I saw the real thing and my head began to swim. Even the lavishly illustrated, 164-page catalog does not begin to approximate the lushness of these paintings as seen in the gallery. The difference would be like - imagine this is you can - the difference between seeing Marilyn Monroe's 1953 Playboy photos and being in the room when she was posing for them.

The second of these principles is that art that depicts images from the real world must work on two levels. It must convincingly depict the object or figure, whether in a stylized, realistic or abstract manner, and connect with the viewer emotionally; and it must work on an abstract level. These paintings do both in spades. They connect emotionally, and they look very much like real people with all of their fears, their playfulness, their humor, their longings and frustrations on display.

Within the faces there are swirls and slashes of thickly laden paint that create abstract movements, contrasts and harmonies of color and shape that are captivating in and of themselves regardless of their relationship to the faces. These areas of color and movement tend to encircle hairlines and jawlines or to create patterns within cheekbones and across noses and lips, and particularly around the eyes. They are painted in shades of violet, blue, green and red that can be almost as startling as was the green stripe Henri Matisse painted down the middle of his wife's face in the famous portrait popularly known as "Woman with Green Stripe." Yet, in Turner's portraits these odd colors seem perfectly natural.

The third principle I would like to mention has to do with looking at art. Art should be looked at up close and at a distance. Details get lost when viewing from a distance, and overall patterns can't be seen when up close, especially when what you're looking at is 21 feet wide and five feet tall. Turner's portraits are displayed in such a way as to create astounding patterns of value and hue that can only be seen when you step back and look at them from across the gallery, but then from that distance you can't see the marvelous details of texture and abstract patterns that I wrote about in the previous paragraph.

I started this with a comparison to the Andy Warhol show at Tacoma Art Museum. As much as I admire Warhol's accomplishments and overall body of work, if I were to compare these two shows alone, not taking Warhol's historic contribution into consideration, I would have to say the Turner exhibition is more enjoyable.

See my review in the Weekly Volcano, which hits the street tomorrow due to Thanksgiving, and get yourself down to Museum of Glass to see this show.