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.