Photo by Myles RobinsonRay Turner's nameless nation is one of fifth-circle-of-hell smog descending over cities built for giants. In the large canvases largely taken up by sepia skies, the cities seem like a hybrid of excavated Ur and apocalyptic Thunderdome: nondescript edifices loom inside the walls, packed together against the threat of outsiders. There is no space between them. And then, in the foreground, beyond the empty, crowded city, he throws in parkland where there should be desert, with tiny, smudged adults playing baseball.
Except for the whole baseball thing, the paintings are terrific. Turner's palette consists solely of a thousand shades of burnt umber and two-day-old-onion-dip white. It's not a happy effect, but it's a properly mysterious one. These are settings of another, medieval time and plane—even a Kabbalic one, if you'll permit me to get all Madonna on you. And then there are the baseball players. Rah-rah!
It really is a muddle: there are so many good, despairing points Turner could be trying to make—about cities; about our disappearing leisure time (though only if you count it against the aristocratic class and not against the pre-labor-unions 80-hour workweek or agricultural sunup to sundown); about the essence of Americana being dwarfed into microscopy by the industry of man; about our drab, sienna world.
I don't think he is, though. I think he just likes baseball and thought to himself, "I should put some baseball players in front of this gigantic walled fortress! That would be good. I like baseball." Where there was such a good opportunity for unbridled cynicism and negativity, Turner seems instead to find optimism. Baseball is a gallant sport, one in which we come together in teams with spirit and drink beer and relax. No matter how terrifying the city behind them, the baseball players can go outdoors and have a fun day. Nice!
Turner's last show at Diane Nelson Fine Art focused on bullet trains zooming through barren, murky landscapes in the same eerie palette. Here, he shows people, baby's-fingernail-size though they are. The effect is just as desolate. These teeny crumbs have millions of years to go before they can evolve and repopulate this Planet of the Apes, no matter how much baseball they play.
My favorite in the series "New Paintings" abandons America's pastime. In it, an ancient city's high spires reach the top of the canvas (in most of his works, the sky crushes the cities down to the canvases' bottom sixth). Wandering in front of the graceful buildings, tiny daubs of paint form cloaked figures. It seems as if some biblical scene is being carried out—biblical by way of Gothic. Perhaps a woman is about to be stoned for adultery. Wouldn't that be exciting? Or perhaps it's just another scene of the city's fathers running around, telling everyone what to do. It's positively Talmudic.
Also at Diane Nelson, R. Kenton Nelson shows a series of just a few flat, Pop paintings that have charmed their way onto Nelson's office walls. A beach scene shows a beauty in a '40s bathing suit stepping through an inner tube with her smooth, muscled legs, while a handsome man stands next to her, doing nothing, but that's not important. In another, a suited man pours tap water into a glass. The seemingly simple scenes leave a lot of back story undiscovered. They're wonderful (though terribly bourgeois, but what do we care?).
Up the street at Peter Blake Gallery, LA hero Ed Moses is showing a sweet series, though it shimmers suspiciously like Peter Alexander's deep-ocean series at the Orange County Museum of Art. Here, in varying abstracted compositions that weave between squid purple and octopus-ink black, pools of paint form whales' eyes sparingly. One is a rich green slathered with fluorescent yellow. It looks organic, like high-growing iris leaves. It's a series that grows on you as you walk through the gallery: it's simple and dark, yet the dark is not forbidding. Rather, with the preponderance of critters (at least in my Rorschachian reading), it feels almost cheerily populated. Ringo Starr's "Octopus' Garden" could make its home at the bottom of one of these, if Moses just had lots of shiny foil. See? It's sweet!
Ray Turner and R. Kenton Nelson at Diane Nelson Fine Art, 435 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2440. Open Sun.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Sept. 12; Ed Moses at Peter Blake Gallery, 326 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9994. Call for hours. Through Sept. 11.
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