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'James Dean' Artist Ties Work to 'Youth in Asia'

July 15, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — When Richard Turner's father was sent to Saigon by the U.S. government in 1959, the Midwestern high-school student hadn't even heard of Vietnam. As things turned out, his experience there during his family's two-year stay provided the theme for nearly all the art he has made in the past two decades.

Turner, who teaches Asian art history and sculpture at Chapman University in Orange (where he also directs the art gallery), discussed his work on Tuesday at Newport Harbor Art Museum.

The lecture almost could have been called, "Terry Allen and Me," because of the parallels Turner attempted to draw between his own work and Allen's (represented at the museum by "Youth in Asia," a massive group of Vietnam-related installations and other works).

The real title of the talk, "James Dean in Saigon: Counterculture Imperialism," was an allusion to his teen-age attempt to be a good "cultural ambassador"--in the words of the Cold War-era manual his family read before leaving the United States--by introducing Saigon kids to U.S. pop-culture highlights of the era.

"James Dean in Saigon" is a mixed-media work by Turner from 1987 in which a photo of the doomed young actor is juxtaposed with a map of Saigon and a calligraphic extract from a Vietnamese poem--written on a chalkboard forming part of a funerary monument--which translates as, "Sooner or later, we all must die."

This mingling of Eastern and Western cultural forms is typical of Turner's work. He has been fascinated by phenomena as distinct as the latter-day Vietnamese style of Cubism and the clash between the aloof, Neoclassical forms of French colonial architecture and Southeast Asian builders' improvised use of available materials (bamboo, corrugated metal).

Many of Turner's works explore the importation of American pop culture of the '50s by layering Eastern and Western imagery (such as Fred Flintstone with a bearded sage painted in traditional ink-and-brush style).

Whizzing through dozens of slides of his works in an hour, Turner gave himself little time to discuss the thinking behind specific works, or the evolution of his views of East-West cultural exchanges.

Most disappointing, he also failed to point out the major differences between his and Allen's ways of conceptualizing and embodying aspects of the American involvement in Vietnam in favor of stressing the less interesting, more obvious similarities.

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For Turner, who devoted a chunk of the '60s to studying Indian painting in India and Chinese painting, calligraphy and seal engraving in Taiwan, the formal qualities of Asian art have been a major influence, and distinctions between visual styles generally are key elements of his work.

Allen, on the other hand, has developed a sort of vernacular, quasi-mystical poetry, compounded from equal parts of small-town American life and counterculture attitudes, and conveyed through juxtapositions of objects, imagery and words (read, felt--most are stamped into metal--or heard on tape).

According to Turner, both his and Allen's work deal more with "the resonance of war on the home front" than life on the battlefield. (Neither artist is a Vietnam veteran.) Both work with a wide range of media, he added, both have been commissioned to make public art, and both use texts in their work.

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One '70s project of Turner's was a show called "Recent Western Stupas" for 58-F (a former artist's space in Orange) that proposed Western pop-culture interpretations of the stupa, the tower-like shape of a Buddhist shrine. The pieces included a view of the vast upper portion of Chairman Mao's head, a yoga teacher posing as a "living stupa," and a stupa made by burrowing ants.

During the past few years, Turner has designed more than 20 public art works that incorporate Southeast Asian (and occasionally Indian) architectural forms.

Turner describes "Memory's Vault"--a concrete, steel and stone sculptural tableau in a state park in Port Townsend, Wash.--as a combination of "the materials of artillery bunkers, which make you think of 'Hogan's Heroes' and World War II, and a Japanese rock garden." The idea, he said, is to redirect viewers' thoughts from war to peace.

"Wall Gazing Gallery," an environmental structure with a water element on the Cal State Fullerton campus, derives from the artist's memories of the sound of rain beating on the corrugated metal roof of a Vietnamese hut.

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Another Orange County project in process--for the Irvine Transportation Center--is based on the forms of astronomical devices in Jaipur and New Delhi, India.

Ticking off a list of Western borrowings from Eastern cultures throughout modern history, Turner mentioned such phenomena as Chinoiserie in 18th-Century Europe, the influence of Japanese prints on Impressionism, Zen Buddhist ideas that crop up in Beat poetry and mandala-inspired psychedelic art of the 1960s.

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