Bound Brook: It’s the Somerset County borough where Upton Sinclair, the muckraking novelist who exposed conditions in the meatpacking industry, died in 1968. Fortune and Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White grew up here in the early 1900s.
Located about 30 minutes north of Princeton along the Raritan River, Bound Brook has been ravaged by flooding from the Raritan, most recently during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the nor’easter of 2007, and Hurricane Irene in 2011. It’s been built, rebuilt, and rebuilt again.
Bound Brook is also where painter David Ambrose grew up and works. In his 23 years in this studio, he has seen four floods. He has had to evacuate, but knock wood, he has never had water.
“It is tempting to draw a connection between this environment and his method of working,” wrote independent curator Jane Farver in the catalog for his 2013 exhibit in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Describing a “disruption of boundaries” in Ambrose’s work, John McGiff of the Warner Gallery in Middleton, Delaware, where Ambrose exhibited in 2013, wrote “any semblance of order is visited by a tidal surge of color, perhaps a reflection” of Bound Brook’s repeated flooding.
On a dry sunny day, I found my way to Ambrose’s studio above a computer repair shop on a commercial thoroughfare. Ambrose was between trips to gather works from his collectors for his retrospective at the New Jersey State Museum, running through January 15. He kindly offered change for the parking meter, running down and up the narrow flight of stairs to the street.
In one room of the studio is his office, lined with shelves of art books, his desk overflowing with books he is currently looking at. “I’m proud of my appetite for art,” he says. “It would take months to tell you who my favorite artists are.” At the moment, he is reading everything he can about ikat (a dyeing technique) and Aboriginal art, as well as Persian miniature painting — all of which influence his current body of work.
The studio’s main room, lit with large windows, has work space at its center. The walls are lined with paintings, arranged in chronological order as if in a gallery. Until this moment I was only familiar with Ambrose’s more recent abstract paintings and was surprised to see his earliest work, hyperrealist paintings of, for example, red-stoned row houses in Philadelphia.
Ambrose begins at the beginning. He has been making art since he was six years old. After surgery to remove a bone tumor, after which he had to wear a hip cast for a year, he couldn’t go out to play, and his family placated him with reams of paper on which he would draw animals, mostly fish, from his head.
Not expecting anyone could make a living as an artist, and inspired by an impassioned teacher, he pursued art history as a major at Muhlenburg College. Ambrose was 20 when his paternal grandmother died and left him money with which he could delve into family origins in Sicily and Naples, a trip that included stops in Rome, Florence, Paris, and Amsterdam. He became enamored of the cathedrals and painted en plein air where passersby would stop to watch. The year was 1980, and it was at that moment he made what he considers his first successful painting and consequently discovered himself as an artist.
“It was a golden moment,” he recounts, during which he understood that if he worked hard and his eyes worked well, he could see how to find solutions.
Back at Muhlenburg Ambrose took studio classes, then held odd jobs, from working in a camera store to framing and art handling. After exhibiting at the 1985 New Jersey Biennial at the Newark Museum, he was accepted into the MFA program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under Neil Welliver, a Josef Albers disciple who evolved from color field painting to realistic Maine landscapes. As a guest lecturer, the painter Alex Katz told Ambrose to work harder.
“It was a tough experience but it changed the course of my work and opened my mind,” says Ambrose, who took his hyperrealistic approach to the micro level, painting wood grain and rusted metal. “The same mark making is in everything I do,” says Ambrose, comparing the details of sycamore bark in front of a Philadelphia row house in a 1987 painting to a close-up study of a wooden trunk in 1988. “I’m making something attractive out of something that’s not, the beauty of the rust.”
He cites wabi sabi, the Japanese design principle in which beauty is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, to describe his finding poetry in the crudeness of the rust. Ambrose painted dozens of works in the trunk series, three of which are in the State Museum show.
That wooden trunk, by the way, was brought by his grandparents from Sicily, carrying all that they brought to America. It sits in a corner of the studio, an homage to all that he took from their journey.
Ambrose, who has taught at Fashion Institute of Technology, Pratt, Parsons, Middlesex Community College, and privately, considers himself an “eyeball realist” because he never works from a photo. “A camera has a different way of seeing, and I like to make my own decisions,” he says.
From the hyperrealist wood-grain paintings he went to conjoining panels with staples, with their metallic reflective lines, referencing the sutures of his childhood surgery.
Meanwhile, he had lace hanging around the studio — doilies, antimacassars, and the like. People just give these to him, he says. His grandparents and parents had been dressmakers and tailors, and he had a breakthrough, stitching together the pieces of lace to suggest European architecture, then gessoing the constructions to canvas, creating his own architectural story.
“You obviously have great respect for your grandparents,” I begin, but when I comment on the grandmothers who lost their eyesight creating these works of lace that might otherwise be eaten by moths in the bottom of a drawer or a trunk, he quickly defends himself against what he perceives as the feminist critique, saying he is adding new value to these works, often damaged by cigarette burns or time. “I’m extending it and adding layers,” he says.
Right. That’s what I was wanting to say.
“The open-weave rosettes of the netting are like the centuries of grime and soot that shade perforated stone portals or rose and lancet windows,” wrote curator Lilly Wei in a catalog for his 1998 show at Aljira. “The skill of medieval stone masons made stone look like lace while Ambrose makes lace look like stone.”
“His work can be seen as a blending of the perceived ‘feminine’ art of lace-making and the ‘masculine’ activity of building,” wrote Farver.
Ambrose learned to sew by watching his parents and grandparents, and his mother helped to reinforce what he tacked together. Like the staples he used from a staple gun, sewing is a drawing technique, he says, as well as a way for the body to heal, as these become biomorphic shapes with their own identity. Throughout the 1990s his palette was earthy and fleshy.
After having to evacuate after Hurricane Floyd, and then the horrific events of September 11, 2001, his spirits sank. He self-medicated with color.
“I stopped painting big, because who cares?” he says about the priorities of the era. “But I had to keep working because it’s the only thing that makes me happy.” He began making his own lace canvases, painting the front, and pushing painting through apertures from the back. These are diminutive and joyful, like threads of color in original intricate medallions with twinkling sparkles of light. “And you get color on the back — it’s like two paintings for the price of one,” he jokes. Even the sides are like sponges from the sea.
In the early aughts, Ambrose began making small works on paper in a process he developed piercing foam core with a ceramicist’s pin tool, based on architectural plans and facades. The paper is laid on Plexiglas and painted with watercolor washes that the Plexiglas repels. Finally, he makes minute brush marks that look like embroidery fantasia.
The traditional way to make lace is to transfer the pattern by a similar practice of pricking, and Ambrose compares the drying of washes to the process of ikat. “I’m excited about the image and I add as I go. Concentration is a form of expression, a valid way to make work: to focus, meditate to make something of beauty.”
Each sheet of paper Ambrose works on goes through a laborious process, and he spends days precisely piercing the paper to achieve elaborate patterns, some recognizable as, say, the rose window of a Gothic cathedral, but others are improvisational.
Art historian and curator Midori Yoshimoto (New Jersey City Museum) compares the glittering colors of orange, cobalt blue, yellow, and green to glass mosaic “reminiscent of the Byzantine churches of Ravenna, Italy, that Ambrose visited as an art student … When one shifts their gaze toward the nuanced light and shadows of the dark background, the dots start appearing as countless stars in a galaxy or nebulae. They could also be seen as cells inside our bodies surrounded by membranes in a microscopic view.” She goes on to describe it as creating order out of chaos, of making sense of the world through the physical interactions of paper, water, pigments, and view.
“The overall compositions in Ambrose’s paintings” can be seen on both a micro and macro level, says Mary Birmingham, curator at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, where Ambrose had a 2012 exhibition. They can seem like magnified cells or computer circuitry. “Are we looking down on the archaeological remains of an excavated city or on the topography and foliage revealed in a satellite photo? Often the network of lines and dots resembles roads and points of interest on a map.”
With the success Ambrose experienced with these works came joy and the return to working on a larger scale. “It all comes back to sewing,” says Ambrose, in threads so fine and patterns so intricate the viewer is drawn into an alluring fantasia, a maze with no exit.
Repairing Beauty: David Ambrose: A Mid-Career Retrospective, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Through January 15, 2017. $5 requested donation. 609-292-5420 or www.statemuseumnj.gov.