Lenore Tawney: elegance in many forms

November 17, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

During the past 40 years, Lenore Tawney has become known as a pioneer in the liberation of fiber, giving it a sculptural presence that has won her accolades and exhibitions in leading museums. But she has done other kinds of work as well, including collage and small constructions. An exhibit of her work at the Maryland Institute College of Art demonstrates that whatever the form, she can endow it with elegance and nuance, reserve and passion.

The show opens with a group of woven pieces that reveal all those qualities. "In Fields of Light" (1975) is a wall-size square of orange which has in its center a circle created simply by a row of slits in the material. In a sense, it's minimalist -- a single color, a single material, simplicity of form -- but it's also rich, warm and sensual, in a quiet way almost voluptuous.

"Dove" (1974) is made in the form of a great cross whose "wings" carry as much implication of religion as of flight, and whose strands of greenish-gray threading through the predominant wheat color whisper a subtlety that embraces both form and content. Several sculptures along one wall have in common a verticality that suggests anthropomorphism, including human qualities beyond the physical, such as rectitude.

The same sensibility is evident in the small collages and boxes as in the grand fibers. In "The Fairest of Plants" (1969), Tawney takes a bit of bone, a stone, a mirror, puts them in a little box and creates drama, perhaps even opera. "First Dust of Spring" (1984) and "Distilla" (1967) draw you in with lyrical color and keep you with detail.

Somewhat larger wall pieces from the 1980s possess a sense of spirituality. In "The Flower Lies Hidden" (1986), an egg is positioned before a book, with two webbed bird's feet beneath, all on a black background. It speaks a complex message of the

journey of life as one of growing knowledge finally overcome by death, but also of rebirth and the continuing cycle.

"Upon a Grey Shore" (1986) communicates somewhat the same message, only here there is less a sense of solitary progress and more a sense of generational challenge. Even as she is being cerebral, however, Tawney overwhelms you with visual richness, especially enveloping blacks and deep blues.

Tawney's impressiveness isn't invariable. She can be obvious, as with the winged foot of "Celestial Messenger" (1978). And a group of collaged chairs from the 1980s are almost pretentious for an artist of such reserve -- they try to be more significant than they are.

But those are exceptions. Near the chairs is a case of small pieces that combine weaving with feathers, beads and shells. They possess the beauty, dignity and depth of this artist at her best.

LENORE TAWNEY

Where: Decker Gallery, Mount Royal Station Building, Maryland Institute College of Art, Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street.

When: Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursdays and Fridays to 9 p.m.), Sundays noon to 5 p.m., through Dec. 13.

Call: (410) 225-2300.

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