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For artist Richard Turner, there’s a hidden story in every stone

For artist Richard Turner, there’s a hidden story in every stone
Artist and curator Richard Turner stands in front of his drawings of "Viewing Stones" at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery. The show features large stones shaped by erosion, as well as many artworks that were inspired by the various rocks and objects on display. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

For nearly two millenia, viewing stones have been collected and displayed for their beauty and evocative qualities. In Japan, they are known as “Suiseiki”; in China, they're called scholar’s rocks. But for artist, educator, gallery director and curator Richard Turner, viewing stones are an inspiration.

“In the 1990s, I did a series of plaster sculptures inspired by the California geology and especially by Chinese and Japanese viewing stones,” he says. “Soon after, I began collecting the stones, which I regard as deep time portals.”

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Detail of a viewing stone at the Guggenheim Gallery
Detail of a viewing stone at the Guggenheim Gallery (Marcus Herse)

Turner’s fascination with viewing stones has informed his artistic practice, as well as the Asian art history classes that he taught at Chapman University for four decades until 2011. From his personal studio work of abstract paintings and ceramic sculptures, to his site-specific public art in several states and his curatorial work at Chapman University’s Guggenheim Gallery and other venues, he is inspired by stone.

His current exhibition, co-curated with Marcus Herse, at the Guggenheim Gallery, “A Matter of Course,” contains his viewing stones and other stones from the collection of Thomas S. Elias and Hiromi Nakoji, alongside original stone-inspired artworks by Turner and 12 other artists.

Turner created his Jackson Pollock-inspired “Rolling Stone Drawings” for the show by rolling ink and paint-covered river rocks over paper hundreds of times. “One morning in my studio last year,” he says, “I picked up an egg-shaped river rock, slathered it with ink and began rolling it back and forth over paper. Soon after, I assembled stones, ink and paper and took them to Burning Man where I invited passers-by to make their own drawings. Later, I experimented with tempera paint, tea, wine, beet and cabbage juice and coffee as colorants.”

Sculpture by Tony Marsh
Sculpture by Tony Marsh (Marcus Herse)

The Chapman exhibition also features sculptures inspired by the stones and other artworks formed in part by heat, pressure, wind and water, the same forces that shape the stones.

Paul Harris’ “Igneous Ligneous Inosculations” sculptural pieces combine an igneous viewing stone with a ligneous (wooden) tree stump. This careful merging of stones with similarly colored and textured stumps results in pieces that link different elements from nature, while connecting humankind with the natural world.

“The juxtaposition of viewing stones with artworks encourages viewers to reconsider their assumptions about both art and rocks,” Turner says. "As light from distant stars began their journeys eons ago, viewing stones archive forces [including droughts and floods] that have animated our universe for millions of years."

A viewing stone at the Guggenheim Gallery
A viewing stone at the Guggenheim Gallery (Marcus Herse)

Sediments of time

Just as Turner’s work with the viewing stones is rooted in time and memory, several of his public art pieces across the country have been created as memorials. “We Too Were Once Strangers,” created in Santa Ana in 2015, celebrates deceased Japanese American farmers in Orange County; while his “Anaheim Veterans’ Memorial” (1999) features a concrete column with a bronze relief. “Stone is one of the most commonly used materials for memorials," he says. “With geological time, stone is malleable, perishable and alive. And like stone, memorials are dynamic as they change over time.”

“The 28 pieces of public art that I have done in the last four decades,” he says, “articulate places and spaces and are intended to enhance one’s understanding and appreciation of a location’s history, ecosystem, function or potential for community."

The centerpiece of his “Liberty Plaza” (1999) at Chapman University is a large graffiti covered section of the Berlin Wall, located in an oval pool, surrounded by a concrete ledge with the inscription, “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand.” A cast concrete seat on a grassy mound across from the pool was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial.

Recently, Turner’s memorials have taken a personal turn.

The memorial was an important part of my own grieving process and a gesture towards others who share the trauma of loss


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To commemorate the life of his wife Sylvia, who died in 2016, Turner created the installation “Air Becomes Breath” last November for Santa Ana College — where she was a dean and longtime professor. It featured 14 of Sylvia’s elegant outfits, photographed and printed onto white silk banners and blown by fans.

“The memorial was an important part of my own grieving process and a gesture towards others who share the trauma of loss,” he says. “I have recently begun working on a larger exhibition, bringing together work by other artists who deal with the same topic, in the hope of furthering our understanding of the end-of-life experience.”

Sylvia’s ashes will be housed in a columbarium near Turner’s “Equinox Sunrise,” a public art sculpture, suspended above the altar at Chapman's Fish Interfaith Chapel. Made of gold-colored anodized aluminum tubing, the work is an abstract depiction of daybreak featuring a rising sun and a descending moon.

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John Knuth's "Flyspeck" painting, which was created by swarms of flies that had eaten pigments
John Knuth's "Flyspeck" painting, which was created by swarms of flies that had eaten pigments (Marcus Herse)

Collaborating with Nature

Alongside Turner’s pieces in “A Matter of Course,” the exhibition features a dozen artists who incorporate natural forces into their creative processes. These include Cole Sternberg’s paintings that are washed by waves, and Candice Lin’s live koji mold sculptural piece. John Knuth’s “Flyspeck” paintings “confront the false binary of nature and culture, sharing agency with thousands of flies in the process,” Turner says. Knuth attaches a mesh-walled enclosure, filled with many thousands of flies, to the canvas. The flies ingest a diet of sugar water and acrylic paint, and over a two-week period, regurgitate the unusual brew onto the canvasses. The results are large colorful paintings that evoke pointillism and even landscapes.

Sculptor Tony Marsh describes, in the show's accompanying catalog, his creation of organic ceramic sculptures by employing materials “that comprise the earth’s crust.” He allows the clay, the glazes and even the kiln to direct the course of his completed pieces. “This creates new topographical landscapes, as combinations of materials under the action of heat and cooling cycles, slip, flow, boil, collide and stack in new formations.”

“ ‘A Matter of Course,’ ” Turner says, “is an effort by several participants to introduce viewing stones to a wider audience and to change the conversation within the stone collecting community”. To that end, he is writing a book with Thomas Elias and Paul Harris, which casts light on stones — those earthy objects that hold the memories of our world — and the people who love them.

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Candace Lin's koji mold sculpture
Candace Lin's koji mold sculpture (Marcus Herse)

‘A Matter of Course’

Where: Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University, 1 University Drive, Orange.

When: Through Sunday.

Info: guggenheimgallery.org

Cole Sternberg's painting that was washed by waves
Cole Sternberg's painting that was washed by waves (Marcus Herse)
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