(Sarah Bain Gallery, Orange County) Change is brewing in Ray Turner's newest paintings. You can read it in the shifting light of the glorious skies he paints. But it's 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 romanticism's 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 painter's like Frederic Church, who painted his continent's unique grandeur and primal landscape to evoke sentiments of "divinely ordained" Manifest Destiny and civilizing progress over wild nature. Unlike Church however, Turner's paintings feel less like visual doctrines than personal ruminations.
Turner's paintings often present vistas where the land, the sky and civilization meet. This time out, however, they are borderlands where bounderies are growing increasingly indistinct and light doesn't travel far. In Study for Steamtrain, the earth's horizon is a dark, vaguely train-shaped blur erupting fiery steam like a painterly volcano. As if cauht 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 earth's 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 dynamics of competition and fair play are nostalgically celebrated.
For all those associations, however, Turner's baseball stadiums are ambiguous sites. Small, shrinking patches of quick, vivd color, they often glow -- as in The Old Ballpark -- 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 sunset's end, dawn's 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 baseball's social and historic connections to this nation's spirit and psyche, it's hard not to read Turner's baseball diamond oasis-in-the-dark as metaphor. Even as images like the Catcher's Mitt and Yankee Stadium reveal the artist's 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 it's 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 game's red dust fields burning in the dark. Just at their illuminated edge there always creeps a deep and unsettling void of smoky darkness. It's an ub=nsettling 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 diamond's brightness Turner pits the glowing ideals of sportsmanship and decency against the surrounding darkness. It's 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.