'Master Metalsmith: Eleanor Moty'
At the National Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive, through Sunday. Call 901-774-6380 or visit metalmuseum.org
Last week we took two of our grandchildren to the National Ornamental Metal Museum to see demonstrations in blacksmithing and forging — or as the 11-year-old said, smithery and forgery — and also happened to look at the current exhibition, "Master Metalsmith: Eleanor Moty."
Generally I don't write about shows that are about to close, but Moty's work is so strange and entrancing that I'm rigorously chastising myself for not getting to it sooner, and I urge readers to hie themselves to the museum today, Saturday or Sunday to take it in.
Moty was an innovator in employing electroplating and photoetching techniques in fine metalsmithing, when she was a student at the University of Illinois, as well as being noted for her inventive abstract designs and the use, particularly since the early 1980s, of different varieties of rutilated quartz, that is, quartz with inclusions of rutile material (mostly titanium dioxide) that give the appearance of golden needles inside the crystals, though other colors are possible. She retired in 2001 after almost 30 years teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; she now lives and maintains her studio in Tucson.
The Metal Museum typically displays two or three exhibitions simultaneously, but this show is a full-treatment 44-year career-spanning retrospective, with objects ranging from 1967 to 2011. If there's a flaw, it's that at a museum-filling 70 pieces, the accumulation of sheer otherworldly beauty takes a toll by the time one reaches the last gallery; paradoxically, considering that most of the pieces are small enough that they would fit into the palm of a hand, the effect is overwhelming.
"Master Metalsmith: Eleanor Moty" begins with a selection of the artist's student work — a hand mirror, clunky necklaces — that is highly inventive certainly but deeply imbued with the funky hippie spirit of the times. Gradually we perceive a different sensibility develop, one of increased sophistication in method and design sense, with a tendency toward the stylized fluidity of Art Deco combined with the suave decorative abstraction of the 1950s and early '60s and an emphasis on an organic character. These are suggestions, however; what astonishes about the exhibition is Moty's wonderful power of assimilation and creativity, honed, as we see in a continuously running video, by the process of making innumerable intuitive and variable pencil sketches before settling on one design.
Those sketches and designs and the objects that result from Moty's efforts focus strictly on the concept of the brooch as adornment and work of art. The artist prefers vertical shapes, followed by square-ish constructions, that serve as lovely and unearthly vehicles for the rutilated quartz or whatever other sort of semiprecious stone is involved. As perfectly mounted in this exhibition, with plenty of space around each object and lighting cannily arranged, each piece glows in the illumination like a unique treasure.