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East Blenders

Artists From the Other Side of the Globe Wittily Update Traditional Ideas

NEEDLE PARK: A detail of one of Leyla Tas’ modern primitive-goes-baroque brooches.

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/22/2006

Abandon and Adhering; MFA Thesis Exhibition: Leyla Tas

At the Asian Arts Gallery at Towson University’s Center for the Arts through March 17;At the Holtzman MFA Gallery at Towson University’s Center for the Arts through April 7

Not usually a destination spot for gallery geeks, Towson University’s Center for the Arts shines this month with two elegant shows that have absolutely nothing in common—Australian-born MFA student Leyla Tas’ thesis show and a survey of “international modern ink painting” presented by the university’s Asian Arts and Culture Center. Mounted across from each other in the Holtzman MFA and Asian Arts galleries, respectively, these shows make for a decent lunchtime art break.

A metal-smith and jewelry maker, Tas specializes in intricately hewn brooches and pins that aren’t meant to be worn—in fact, they are completely unwearable, more sculptural exercises in geometry and proximity than actual fashion accessories. Even the titles of her sculpture series suggest a spirit of experimentation—“Pin Exploration” finds Tas soldering and torch-firing steel pins to create many variations on this simple, familiar object. Some sport small red enamel tips, like metal matches, while others twist almost beyond recognition, and one clutches a tiny jewel.

It’s a simple concept, and a weak one, if Tas had left it at that—but her “Remnants Series,” recently seen in a slightly different and less successful format at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery, takes her pin manipulations to the next level. Wired onto two-dimensional facsimiles of human torsos, then reflected in a strip of mirrors mounted to the wall, Tas’ brooches are expertly machined, Romanesque pieces that carry a heft and weight not often seen in contemporary jewelry.

Her bizarre installation technique, which makes the pieces look something like subtle torture contraptions, is meant to show that these brooches are supposed to be worn against the skin, with the twisted, angry-looking tendrils of their pin backings facing outward, poking through clothing and into the world. Or, at least, that’s what it looks like Tas is getting at—it’s really hard to get the gist of how these objects are meant to relate to the human body based on how they’re presented here. Observed as mere objets d’art, however, the skill evident in Tas’ work is undeniable. Unlike the pin installations, which bear clear marks of the creative process, it’s almost impossible to see evidence of human manipulation in Tas’ larger metal brooches. They seem too perfectly symmetrical, too elegantly balanced to have been produced by human hands—and that, in a sense, is their greatest asset.

Across the hall, the Asian Arts and Culture Center’s Abandon and Adhering presents a survey of contemporary ink works done using age-old East Asian traditions, materials, and philosophies. Though ink painting, like all other art forms, has evolved over the past 1,000 years—the oldest works hail from China’s Sung Dynasty, which ended in 1279—it remains somewhat timeless in several respects. Largely inspired by natural scenes and forms, and heavily reliant on water to dilute and manipulate color and line, today’s ink paintings have much in common with Sung Dynasty scrolls, while exemplifying an unmistakably contemporary aesthetic.

Though billed as an “international” survey of work, most of the artists in Abandon and Adhering hail from the East, with the largest number of contributors from Taiwan. Many works, such as Chen Kwan-Lap’s “Sounds of the Mountain and River,” are presented in a traditional scroll format, and while Kwan-Lap’s work beautifully blends turquoise and black ink into a naturalistic scene, here, as in much of the work, no great evolutionary strides are made.

Lee Chun-Yi’s very contemporary “Eyes Are Confused by Five Colors” is a different story—aptly named, it shows two pairs of eyes boxed in by metallic-looking squares in, you guessed it, five colors, and possesses a tension not typically seen in traditional Asian ink work. Korea’s Lee Keun Woo’s “No. 3” is similarly experimental—affixing delicate fragments of blue and white fabric to a gray panel, then framing this with two other panels of carefully painted paper. Alternating rocklike dark gray and light gray bands with untouched expanses of white, Woo creates a piece that evokes the same tranquility as traditional work but offers a new, more abstract aesthetic. Taiwan’s Yuan Chin Taa gets playful with “Leaf Fish,” stamped images of leaves painted to look like whimsical tropical fish—again, not groundbreaking, but a far cry from the typical reeds-on-a-scroll image. Liang Quan’s tiny “No. 1,” “No. 2,” and “No. 3” look like sheet music torn apart and painstakingly pieced back together, accented here and there with tiny blots of coral and slate blue.

As a whole, Abandon and Adhering possesses a meditative, peaceful air that nicely complements Tas’ occasionally harsh-looking machinations, and it’s rare for any area college that isn’t Maryland Institute College of Art to concurrently present this much quality art at once.

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