Bird dogs and squiggles

Audacious aesthetic: Larry Turner’s show at PUSH offers both dog paintings and re-contextualizations of Caravaggio’s masterpiece. Photo by Max Cooper

“He copies things, but then he puts squiggles on them.” That’s how a young girl described Larry Turner’s paintings upon visiting him in his studio last winter. The proverbial mouth of babes generally tells no lies, but at its core, Turner’s work defies convention. His current exhibition, Pointer the Doubting Thomas, demonstrates this.

Turner began pursuing his love for art in the early ‘70s and enrolled in UNCA’s art program in the mid-‘80s. Working as a dentist during the day, Turner would stay up late into the night to complete assignments for his art classes.

Under the tutelage of painter Tucker S. Cooke, head of the UNCA’s visual arts department at the time, Turner was encouraged to reproduce and appropriate classical European paintings — something Cooke is noted for as an artist. To be clear, appropriation is not plagiarism; it is the artist’s deliberate attempt to re-contextualize well-known imagery in order to challenge the viewer’s preconceived associations.

Four paintings at PUSH are Turner’s re-examinations of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” wherein Jesus is showing the gash in his side to a skeptical St. Thomas (the origin of the phrase ”doubting Thomas”).

Rendered in confident applications of acrylic paint, Turner’s paintings re-conceptualize a very confidential moment between four men. In “DT detail,” Turner focuses on the hands, particularly one hand guiding another’s finger into the injury, magnifying eroticism in the gesture. And yes, there are dots and squiggles and blue fingernails that audaciously progress the painting into some sort of ‘80s pop fantasy.

The rest of the show is all dogs — specifically bird dogs that sniff out prey for hunters — painted within adaptations of John Constable’s pastoral “Wivenhoe Park, Essex.” Though he’s painted other animals such as horses and cows, Turner started painting dogs after acquiring a crudely constructed wooden yard ornament in Wilson, N.C., made by a gentleman who was selling them off his front lawn. Perhaps in homage, Turner has included several painted wooden dog reproductions in his show, overlapping them, so that their legs generate a flurry of movement in the gallery.

“Originally I was just interested in the dog as an object to paint,” says Turner, shrugging off any deeper symbolic meaning. “I realized there is a relationship between ‘Doubting Thomas’ and the way the dogs point with their noses.” In one shining moment, Turner superimposes a bird dog snout where Thomas’ finger should be in his “Pink Passion Potion DT” painting.

Turner describes his paintings as “journalistic” for his use of personal ephemera incorporated into their surfaces. Stickers, ticket stubs, and scraps of everyday living are embedded in the paint sometimes humorously — like the tiny sticker of a jalapeno pepper strategically placed in a conspicuous region of the dog in “Arial.”

Several of Turner’s paintings are created on wildly patterned bandanas that he acquired after they caught his eye while waiting in a checkout line at Wal-Mart. The neon dots and stripes of the handkerchiefs break through Turner’s painterly surfaces, momentarily confronting the viewer with their manufactured artificiality. Such impromptu aesthetic jewels are rudimentary to Turner’s work. “It’s funny, when you get into it, magic happens,” says Turner. “It just happens; you don’t really plan it.”

Larry Turner’s exhibit
Pointer the Doubting Thomas, is on display at PUSH Gallery and Skateshop, 25 Patton Ave. through April 27.  More at 225-5509.

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