Art puts semblance of rationality to Embry's chaotic life

March 09, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Norris Embry, who lived in Baltimore for 17 years before his death in 1981, was interested in the art of the mentally ill and suffered from mental illness himself. In the current show of his work at Grimaldis, it is easy -- too easy, really -- to see the evidence of disturbance in the obsessively covered surfaces with their floating faces, which can often seem the manifestations of inner demons.

Embry was a trained artist -- he went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later studied with Oskar Kokoschka -- and the influences of formal training and German expressionism are just as strongly evident here.

In fact, these packed and superficially chaotic images express the artist's deep belief in the sustaining power of art. To look closely at them is to see that they are not random and helter-skelter, as they may at first seem, but carefully constructed in terms of color and composition.

Picture No. 4 in the current show's listing (all the works are untitled), for instance, is as deftly balanced as one could imagine . A passage whose references metamor- phose from music to landscape (the notes become trees) supports a headless, poised figure that bisects the picture vertically, with every element on one side of the center complemented by a clearly balancing element on the other.

The geometric forms of No. 12 have an inescapable logic, carrying the viewer around the surface and back into space in classic pictorial tradition. No. 3 is a triptych whose central image is flanked by two unequal but clearly delineated side panels.

It is as though Embry expressed the belief through his work that while his life might seem chaotic, there was a rationale underlying it, and the rationale was art.

Similarly, while those floating faces may at first seem to be demons, are they all like that? Or do we see that because we know he was disturbed? Those heads frequently turn out to have expressions one associates not with fear and dread but with wonder, amusement and joy. And one can sense the expression of similar feelings through the sophisticated emotion of Embry's colors.

In No. 16, the major part of the image is occupied by two faces facing one another, their silhouettes to the viewer. On the side of one of these faces is another, smaller face looking out at the viewer with an expression of pleased disbelief. The red in this picture is the red of a tulip, echoing the red of one face's lips, and the blues are the blue of sky and the deeper blue of sea. Clearly, this is a painting about love.

Not that Embry's paintings aren't indicative of a disturbed mind. They are, but if there is disorder in them, it is the kind of disorder that contains within itself the underlying order from which it rebels. At bottom, Embry's dark nights contain the promise of dawn.

This show marks the Grimaldis Gallery's return to its former quarters at 523 N. Charles St. from 1006 Morton St.

ART REVIEW

What: Norris Embry exhibit

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; through March 27.

Where: The C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

Call: (410) 539-1000.

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