David Ambrose begins at the beginning. The Bound Brook artist who is having an exhibition of his works on view at the New Jersey State Museum 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 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, 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.
“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. “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 curator Jane Farver in the catalog for a 2013 exhibit.
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 his evacuation during 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. “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.
New Jersey City University art historian and curator Midori Yoshimoto 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 describes 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. “Often the network of lines and dots resembles roads and points of interest on a map.”
With the success Ambrose experienced 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. Through January 15. (609) 292-5420.