Ob­jects com­pel at­ten­tion in the art of Glen­nray Tu­tor

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“To me, phys­i­cal ob­jects are por­tals to a fuller, deeper re­al­iza­tion of the world around me,” says painter Glen­nray Tu­tor in “Por­tals,” a stun­ning se­lected ret­ro­spec­tive of his work that also fea­tures a lengthy in­ter­view with the artist. Tu­tor’s paint­ings al­low the viewer to re­gard ob­jects with the same in­ten­sity he does, lur­ing the eye to per­ceive the power and sig­nif­i­cance of sur­faces.

Tu­tor’s work is usu­ally clas­si­fied as pho­to­re­al­ism, a school of art that arose in the 1960s in a gen­eral trend away from ab­strac­tion to­ward re­al­ism and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The early pho­to­re­al­ists used pho­to­graphs as the ba­sis for art­works that re-cre­ated the source im­age in all its de­tail and pre­ci­sion. The term, along with hy­per­re­al­ism, is used more broadly now to re­fer to work, es­pe­cially paint­ing, that fea­tures el­e­ments of the pho­to­re­al­ist aes­thetic, in­clud­ing a ded­i­ca­tion to pho­to­graph-like clar­ity and a fo­cus on quo­tid­ian sub­ject mat­ter.

A siz­able per­cent­age of the paint­ings in­cluded in “Por­tals,” par­tic­u­larly those from the 1980s and 1990s, show Tu­tor en­gaged with what might be called clas­sic pho­to­re­al­ist im­agery — store­fronts, mo­tels, ve­hi­cles, com­mer­cial sig­nage. In Tu­tor’s case, most of these sub­jects have a ru­ral con­text and are of a postWorld War II vin­tage, but the paint­ings aren’t nostal­gic. Rather, they cap­ture their sub­jects with the vivid­ness and im­me­di­acy of a child’s gaze, through which sur­faces are not only suf­fi­cient but also rev­e­la­tory.

That’s not to say there aren’t flashes of hu­mor and irony em­bed­ded here and there. “Premium and Reg­u­lar” (1990) fea­tures two vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal gas pumps, dif­fer­en­ti­ated only by their la­bels. “Dis­count” (1996) de­picts a fire­works stand housed in a de­crepit school bus with its tires sunk hub­cap-deep into the ground. A sign in the back win­dow says “Open,” and Amer­i­can flags fly from the roof, but the over­all ef­fect is a pic­ture of de­cay. It’s hard not to see some po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary here, es­pe­cially at the thought that this sta­tion­ary hulk is filled with ex­plo­sives.

Tu­tor’s “Long Life” se­ries, by con­trast, seems de­lib­er­ately op­ti­mistic and naive. These paint­ings, which were cre­ated over many years, fea­ture jars of home-canned food and com­mer­cial bot­tles of hot sauce and the like. They’re mostly pre­sented with­out con­text, sim­ply placed in stark re­lief against a dark back­drop. The early paint­ings in the se­ries have a pro­saic qual­ity, but over time Tu­tor uses deeper, more sat­u­rated colors, and the paint­ings take on a fan­tas­tic lus­cious­ness that both echoes com­mer­cial food porn and tran­scends it, all the while in­vok­ing the sump­tu­ous beauty of 17th-cen­tury Dutch still lifes.

In re­cent years, Tu­tor’s sub­jects have be­come in­creas­ingly fan­ci­ful, of­ten fea­tur­ing brightly-pack­aged home fire­works and chil­dren’s toys, ren­dered up close and over­sized, as a child might see them. All is not sweet in­no­cence here — the warn­ings on the fire­works are prom­i­nent; matches lie about in temp­ta­tion. “Phoenix” (2004) shows a bright red ash­tray filled with col­or­ful mar­bles. The close-up per­spec­tive makes them seem gi­gan­tic, as if they might fill a child’s arms, while the ash­tray de­liv­ers a slightly darker mes­sage and re­minds the viewer that they are, af­ter all, just mar­bles.

Al­though only a few of the paint­ings in “Por­tals” seem to carry an ob­vi­ous nar­ra­tive el­e­ment, the book’s long in­ter­view, con­ducted be­tween the artist and his son, artist Zach Tu­tor, re­veals that many if not most of them do con­tain a nar­ra­tive for their cre­ator. Speak­ing about “Phoenix,” Tu­tor de­scribes it as an homage to his par­ents, who smoked:

“She was beau­ti­ful. He was hand­some. They had a long, happy mar­riage. They en­joyed life. I loved to watch them take a cig­a­rette out of a pack, place it be­tween their lips, flick open a lighter, and light the cig­a­rette. This mo­tion was as grace­ful as a bal­let. The Phoenix is a leg­endary bird that lived for 500 years, burned it­self to the ashes, then rose from the ashes to live on.”

Tu­tor, who grew up in Mis­souri but now makes his home in Oxford, Mis­sis­sippi, speaks of­ten in the in­ter­view about his early years and their for­ma­tive ef­fect on his art. The con­ver­sa­tion be­tween fa­ther and son ranges from gen­tle reminiscence to se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of the con­cepts un­der­ly­ing the el­der’s work. Like the paint­ings, their ex­change is en­gag­ing, var­ied and some­how deeply joy­ful. Un­like the typ­i­cal artist’s state­ment, it gives an in­ti­mate sense of the in­tel­lect and en­ergy be­hind the art, and it serves to make “Por­tals” a wor­thy en­cap­su­la­tion of Tu­tor’s re­mark­able body of work.

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Glen­nray Tu­tor

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