New York

Dorothea Tanning

Kent Fine Art

Dorothea Tanning’s paintings present visual impressions, sensations, and visions that defy strict categorization. Her evocative, mysterious images hearken back to a primordial consciousness that is sometimes translated into recognizable pictorial idioms. This show features some of Tanning’s best work from the years 1961 to 1987, work that is consistently daring and haunting. Her latest pieces are as fresh and lucid as ever, executed with fluid linework and intuitive coloration.

One essential reason for Tanning’s constancy is her belief in the supremacy of imagination over logic. By exploring her own imagination as it relates to a collective human understanding, she has been able to approach each picture with a sense of inquisitiveness. Tanning’s clarity of vision comes across because of her excellence of craft. Aspects of her refined draftsmanship from the ’40s and ’50s reappear in Notes For An Apocalypse, 1977, and A Family Portrait, 1977. Many of her paintings feature exquisite brushwork, from the soft ethereality of To The Rescue, 1965, to the wildly lyrical expressiveness of On Avalon, 1984–87. These works are like excerpted narratives built from glimmers of submerged dreams, traumas, absorbed stimuli, and dimming recollections. Elsewhere, Tanning depicts corpulent human nudes either as lushly defined, sensuous forms, or as somewhat immmaterial shells; they are often faceless, their individual identities torn asunder from a psychological base. In this otherworldly state, the figures are left to float as disengaged personas in ambiguous, often claustrophobic spaces. Portions ofnude females are faintly discernible in Pounding Strong, 1981, caught in positions of kneeling, bending, clutching, and writhing around the spectral tracing of a mysterious box, perhaps a large portable radio or TV; with its smoky, earthen tones and eruptions of bright colors, the painting conveys a strong sense of human striving for liberation from a suffocating environment.

Of the many emotions that resonate within Tanning’s highly personal terrain, melancholy is the most pervasive. This state reaches the point of saturation in Sylvia, 1987. The canvas is almost completely black, with only an isolated slice of light visible in the upper half of the picture, revealing two pointed ellipses reaching out to touch a portion of piano keys. Smears of grayish paint emanate from the top and bottom of this light shaft and merge into the silky blackness that dominates this unreal world. In a completely different vein is the exuberant Door 84, 1984. The elongated canvas is abruptly divided by the sculptural element of a vertical-door fragment, complete with knobs. On either side of the door, two women push against the imposed barrier that evenly divides them, as if they represented two aspects of one personality. The figure on the left exerts more effort, while the woman on the right casually props her leg and foot firmly against the border. The picture unleashes an unfettered energy, with its swirling, scattering strokes of fiery yellow and misty green, and could serve as a pointed metaphor for the struggle to gain entry into a spiritual realm.

Jude Schwendenwien

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