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.