"The contemplative approach consists of rising above the whirlpool of our thoughts for a moment and looking calmly within, as if at an interior landscape, to find the embodiment of our deepest aspirations." Happiness, Matthieu Ricard
"They were both of them naked and they neared through the desert dawn like beings of a mode a little more than tangential to the world at large." Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes about his epiphany of his awareness of two different sorts of time: the absolute, unchanging time (substitute your word for God) and the relative, temporal time of humans. Ray Turner paints the sitter’s awareness of this momentary alliance with the circumstances of the particular person they inhabit at that particular moment. He paints the weather of their existence, of the formation and dissolution of the clouds of their face, of the changing of the seasons as they age. Yes, the weather. Each weathered face looks like a sunset, a moonrise, a seashore cliff tempered by the wind and mist, a storm at sea, a foggy day.
There’s something mildly unsettling about these portraits. It’s not like they’re snarky or rebellious, as if the sitters held there against their will. The facial expressions are serene, even passive and accepting. Their compositional lines are French Curve sensuous. They flow across the portrait’s surface like a cresting wave that never breaks. Chins and ears are rounded, cheeks are luxurious, not flashy but pomegranate lush, forehead and eyebrows are like rolling hills. And the eyes are like eddies on a slow-moving river.
They inhabit each pictorial space with authority, their massive, fleshy heads poised on pedestals of shoulders. They may not exhibit giddiness at being cloistered against solid-hued backdrops, but neither do they suggest that they’d rather be somewhere else. They’re just there.
Men, women, some older, some younger, some fleshy, some gaunt. Some men without hair, some with. A few wear glasses, most don’t. Some are accurately-enough rendered with expressionistic daubs of paint; others look like they were composed with the melted wax that pools at the base of a candle. A few might be several degrees off center as they face the painter head-on but they stare directly at the artist. Each exhibit the feeling that they’re looking at the painter as much as the painter is looking at them. And we’re witnessing the whole exchange.
And yet, even with their relative state of painterliness or realism, they quiver with a gentle ambient nervousness. Serene as they may appear, they’re not complacent. Primarily it’s because of the space they inhabit. Each face is pressed flat against the picture plane, close up as close up can be. The colored backgrounds are flat. They suggest ambiguity: either that space is impenetrable or else it extends back to infinity. The heads are here but the space they inhabit is who-knows-where.
The figure-ground relationship is two-dimensional. That lends these otherwise serene faces a sense of urgency, of imminence. Each face is not a page of fear but rather, of what’s-next? They are in your face, waiting. It’s also the cells they inhabit. From one image to the next, it’s always the same crammed, claustrophobic space. They’re compressed into a small pictorial space. It looks like they can barely breath, which reinforces their sense of what-next anticipation.
And the colors. With the occasional burst of red hair, the heads themselves are realistic enough. Turner doesn’t take German Expressionist painter Franz Marc liberties with color: there’s nothing imaginary or poetic here, Instead he engages existential fundamentals. Skin relatively tan, hair in naturalistic enough tones, some white or gray with age. But the background colors against which Foster sets these heads are downright funky: pale lavender; soft yellow-green, light blue, various tones of black and brown. The color combinations of head against background jar with quirkiness, with disjunction. That disjunction combined with the compacted space, with the heads peering at the front of the picture plane, rails against each face’s otherwise supple tone of monastastic stillness.
What Turner does is make each sitter aware of his or her mortality. With his expressionistic brush stroke he gets them to ponder the extent of their life-span. Though each face is massive and stable, not going anywhere, he doesn’t commit each image to a specific photorealistic moment in time because, as living, organically disintegrating human beings, he and his sitters know that frozen, perfect moments don’t exist. He doesn’t capture a likeness, he captures a process, the process of aging against an unimaginable backdrop of time.
That sense of anticipation he creates with space, color, and brushstroke is an awareness of the passing of time. No one present moment can ever be held beyond its present moment. Hence the kaleidoscopic composition of the faces: the sitters age before our eyes. If they didn’t know it before, they know it now. With knowledge comes resignation as well as the ability to fully live in strung-together present moments. Nothing before or after, just now. They’re framed by space and time; all they can do is accept the inevitable and await their relative, uncertain future with anticipation and wisdom.
Read as elements of art – as splashes, daubs, and incisions of paint on a two-dimensional surface –not as flesh and blood human beings, the heads are billowy, always-changing, like a blurred photographic taken at the wrong speed. It’s skewered in a moment, susceptible to the vagaries of space and time. Individually or seen as a collective, the portraits resemble banks of clouds, always resembling something but not for long. All this set against an unchanging sky.
He paints each sitter but he also educates him or her. By being thus rendered, with paint, in that particular session, for a prescribed amount of time, he shows them for what they are: vulnerable, ephemeral, and frail; but no less dignified. And there’s nothing they can do about it. Hence the questioning faces, the in-flux expressions, the small pictorial face that circumscribes their existence. He reminds them of the immensity of time and, ultimately, that they’re magnificent passengers with one-way tickets on a Heraclitean river-flux ship.