From Half Naked to Balzac
In Ray Turner’s current exhibition Half Naked, at JoAnne Artman Gallery, the artist explores portraiture through a variety of mediums, focusing on three related, yet separate themes within the realm of figuration. In the most general terms these three themes are portraits of real subjects, portraits of fictional or historical subjects, and a selection of small portraits that are gestural abstractions of subjects of undisclosed identity. Turner invokes the human form out of bold, gestural strokes, thick swathes of paint, and layers of color. In his treatment and technique, it is clear Turner has mastered the medium to a point where the human form provides a focus to further conceptual explorations of color, line and form.
One of the most intriguing parts of the exhibition is Turner’s decision to focus his attention on one particular fictional work from which he draws inspiration for some of his fictional subjects in the show: Balzac’s influential Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, or The Unknown Masterpiece, which was later integrated in his famous Comedie humaine in 1846. The subject of the short story has been prime fodder for artists and writers alike as it focuses on the eternal question: what makes a masterpiece? In the story a young artist, Poussin, comes to visit the studio of the more accomplished Porbus. There he meets Frenhofer, a painter who has been working on an unfinished masterpiece over the course of 10 years. Poussin offers his exceptionally beautiful lover Gillette as muse and model to Frenhofer so he can finish his painting. Inspired by Gillette Frenhofer finishes his masterpiece. However, when Poussin and Porbus come to view the finished work, they can only see a disjointed swirl of paints and colors - Frenhofer is driven to madness by this reaction to his work and destroys the painting, dying later that same night.
Most remarkably this short work of fiction has been cited as a favorite by modern masters such as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, and Willem de Kooning, and many other artists identifying with the character of Frenhofer, the artist driven to madness in his search of perfection. Although the story was written in the mid-19th century, its influence reaches to the 21st, charting tangible connections to the real lives of artists pursuing their own version of The Masterpiece.
True to form, Balzac’s rendition of the familiar mad genius/artist trope feels like a true-to life account of the artist’s journey. The three characters in the story are set apart by both age and wisdom - there is the young, naive Poussin, the knowledgeable painter Porbus, and the genius Frenhofer. The former two seem to worship at the altar of the latter as someone who holds the keys of knowledge to greater wisdom; a divine conception of the perfection of the human form. These characters feel familiar because Balzac recognized the immortality of the tropes, weaving a tale around the two that forces a perspectival shift, an acknowledgement that the greater truth is something that will always remain out of reach as something that must be learned, rather than explained or shown to another. Two of these characters can be seen in Turner’sPorbus, andKind Frenhofer.By painting the two personages, Turner directs the dialogue through his own process, perhaps identifying with the two fictional artists, much as Cezanne, Picasso and de Kooning before him, linking the painting traditions of today to their predecessors, while also taking part in, as well as celebrating this remarkable discourse.
HALF NAKED: Featuring RAY TURNER || 511A West 22nd St. New York NY 10011 || www.joanneartmangallery.com