The Art of Rachel Darnell

Milagro VII
Milagro VII

Jonathan Goodman
November 2003, New York City

It is difficult today to speak of spiritual or beautiful things; however, the art of Rachel Darnell does exactly that. Indeed, her materials themselves, including gold and silver leaf, reflect the belief that what is beautiful communicates itself in a surface of luxurious density, as well as engaging in a dialogue with the spiritual, or unseen. While her art takes on the intricate patterns of adornment, the paintings themselves never fall to the level of mere decoration; instead, they reify, in the lush beauty of their surface, the artist’s concern with an art that reminds us of ancient brocades and textiles, materials that express the ancient desire to create a wealth of beauty in service of some higher, idealized understanding. Darnell, a Judaic studies major as an undergraduate in college, looks for a statement that would be nearly doctrinal in its implications, were it not for the fact that she refuses to specify the terms of her ardor. As a result, her paintings respond to pieties without specifically enacting them. The result is an encompassing spirituality that gives of itself, enveloping the viewer with its warm and supple abstractions.

In Milagro I (2002), Darnell has literally woven the canvas together, covering it with 24-karat gold leaf and achieving a surface of remarkable physical attractiveness. The piece is a magical extension of the exterior, a visionary textile in which the surface can stand for many things, including the intense pleasures of a private spirituality. Darnell knows how to create a dialogue between viewer and object; here the effect is nearly that of bandaging–traces of reddish color peek through the diagonals of the woven canvas, as if there were, behind the sumptuous beauty presented to us, a deeper, more painful expression of self. So it happens that the beauty of the surface is suffused with the suggestion of a rawer emotion, albeit one mediated by the artist’s obsession with an exquisite exterior. Icon VI (2003), a vertical treatment (29 by 19 inches) of a glowing abstraction, in fact speaks to us as an icon might, with an awareness of the spirit not so much captured as fleetingly solicited for its evocation of prayer and rest. The relatively narrow tower of gold and red, surrounded by a gold-leaf border, intimates a world of exquisite feeling, in which the spiritual life glows with possibility.

Sometimes the beauty is more art-historical than spiritual: The Lush Life (2002), another woven canvas, consists of blues and greens that remind us of the palette of Cezanne. Silver leaf, instead of gold leaf, gives the work its lustrous intensity. Darnell’s sense of color here is acute, given over to a statement of unusual power, as if color itself were capable of healing. The effect of the layering produced by the woven strips of canvas intensifies the color scheme Darnell is using; it seems as though the colors are part of the weave of the canvas itself. Referring to foliage and nature, The Lush Life shows that the artist does not remain indifferent to the world around her, that in fact she is interested in the relation of the visible, or objective, to the invisible, or nonobjective, in art. Darnell is primarily involved, though, with the effect of decoration as it is indicative of a deeper awareness of the self; in Broken Tablet II (2001), a jagged vertical line on the left side of the painting both breaks up and calls attention to the gold leaf panel. It is beautiful and at the same time faintly mysterious, like much of Darnell’s art. It might well serve as a major example of just how far the artist is willing to go in pursuit of both beauty and truth.

Jonathan Goodman is an art writer and editor who has published extensively on modern and contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, Art Asia Pacific, and Art on Paper. He is currently the reviews editor for Art Asia Pacific, and has written exhibition catalogs for art venues throughout the world.

Rachel Darnell takes us into a spacious world.

An exerpt from “A Mystic Universe”

by Catherine Coggin
in Focus Santa Fe

Rachel Darnell was born in Quito, Ecuador and a lot of that country’s magic and color imbue her art. “It’s a more expressive culture and part of the Inca mysticism. It made me part of a different culture and open to it.”

In fact religion and art have always intertwined in Darnell’s life. Her major at Emory University in Atlanta was Judaic Studies that took her to Israel, Egypt and Greece. She studied for a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and all the while her artistic eye travelled with her.

“There is a lot of art in my family. My grandfather did pen and ink drawings. My father is a water colorist. Both my parents loved art. Even with no money, they bought art”

After getting her BA at Emory, Rachel went to the Memphis College of Art to concentrate on weaving. Which didn’t quite allow her the kind of expression she hoped. “I couldn’t get my ideas onto the loom. It was computerized and the computer would just stop.” Nevertheless, weaving proved another step in her spiritual development. ” Woven cloth expresses that we are all interdependent and interconnected,” she explains. “In the Inca tradition, woven cloth was more valuable than gold because it took so long to make.”

Though loom-weaving didn’t quite make the cut, Darnell brought that sensibility to the remarkable pieces she now creates with woven strips of canvas gessoed and then painted.

She paints with oils only and precious metals such as gold and silver leaf and palladium.  Her work truly evokes the great mystic painters Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler.

“I do these because I have to,” she explains.  “All these ideas come to me from everywhere out of the philosophy of nature that in chaos there is organization, pattern.  I believe that and I hope my work touches people.”


Risky Business: The Sublime Paintings of Rachel Darnell

Karen S. Chambers
November 2003, New York City

Rachel Darnell is playing in very dangerous aesthetic territory. Her work is unabashedly
beautiful and her intentions perhaps a trifle too profound for today’s materialistic society. Darnell’s paintings flirt with being too decorative with their layers of luminous oil paint, nearly hidden by sheets of gold leaf. And she takes another risky step by weaving strips of canvas for the support of her luscious abstractions. Of course canvas is woven, but Darnell’s thick strips boldly reveal that structure and she revels in the intertwining of the individual, vastly overscaled, “threads”.

For Darnell the use of precious materials and the humble handcrafting convey a deeply felt spiritual message. Representing the divine, gold has been used to decorate and elevate objects of devotion from ancient times in both Eastern and Western cultures. Today that spiritual meaning has become secondary to one of a secular symbol of wealth, but not for Darnell.

The artists speaks frankly of the technique of weaving as symbolizing the interconnectedness of humanity. “We ae all interdependent”, she says. “We are all part of the same thing.” Darnell’s work has developed through a sequence of experiences. Born in Quito, Ecuador, she is the daughter of American missionaries. When she was four, her family returned to its home base in Memphis, Tennessee. Art has always been part of her family. Her grandfather was an engineer and draftsman, one uncle an architect, another a marine biologist who illustrated his own books, her father a watercolorist, and both her parents art collectors. Darnell attended Saturday classes at the Memphis College of Art throughout grade school and junior high.

Before Darnell came to her vocation, she earned a BA in religion from Emory University in 1984. Her focus was on Judaic Studies because of her desire to understand the roots of Christianity. She spent a year in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, which gave her an opportunity to explore the ancient civilizations of Israel, Egypt and Greece. Her studies led her “past theology” and to the realization that all cultures share a need for the spiritual.

It was then that Darnell was called to art. In 1986 she enrolled at the Memphis College of Art and studied decorative design with a concentration in weaving. However, weaving was not immediate enough nor could she achieve the complexity she sought. She began weaving strips of canvas and then gessoing and painting the surface. Two years after graduating with a BFA in 1988, Darnell began to apply gold leaf to the woven support.

Although Darnell was not directly influenced by Olga de Amaral, an artist who Darnell admires, there is an undeniable connection between their work. While their techniques are very different, both combine weaving, painting and metallic leaf in their works that verge on the sculptural. (Darnell stretches her “weaving” over heavy bars and 2” x 2”s so that when they are installed on the wall, they stand away from it.) And for both, gold is a symbol of the divine.

Darnell has now begun to create a more abstract structure and surface. “Weaving is very symmetrical, and what I have to say is not symmetrical,” she explains. “It is free flowing.” The apparently random structure adds a more dynamic quality the reflects the world today. Darnell’s purely nonobjective paintings have a physicality and presence that recall Russian Orthodox icons. They are objects of contemplation, of devotion.

The spirituality that infuses Darnell’s work can be related to the paintings of Mark Rothko, another artist she revers. Her nuanced color and its luminosity do not imitate Rothko’s color-saturated canvas, but do elicit a similar response. Darnell finds the Rothko Menil chapel in Houston inspiring, and she would like to create her own. Her “monoliths”, tall rectangular canvases, evoke the human figure, and Darnell can envision a series of them creating a sanctuary.

In today’s secular society, Darnell dares to produce works of great beauty and spirituality that are simply sublime.

Karen S. Chambers is a freelance curator, editor, and writer in New York City. Her work has been included in such notable publications as American Ceramics, Art in America, American Craft and Glass. Currently the editor-in chief of LDB Interior Textiles, Ms. Chambers previously served as the editor of New Work, now Glass magazine, and executive editor for Craft International.