Bound Brook, N.J.: It’s where Fortune and Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White grew up in the early 1900s and where muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair died in 1968. Located about 30 minutes north of Princeton along the Raritan River, Bound Brook has been repeatedly ravaged by flooding, 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. Those who live and work here know about hard work.
Bound Brook is where painter David Ambrose grew up. He’s been in his studio 23 years, since getting his MFA, and he’s seen four floods. After having to evacuate after Hurricane Floyd, and the horrific events of Sept. 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.”
On a dry sunny day in late summer, 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, on view at the New Jersey State Museum through January 15, 2017.
His office is lined with shelves of art books, his desk overflowing with those he’s currently reading. “I’m proud of my appetite for art,” he says, as if he has to defend this consumption of knowledge. “It would take months to tell you who my favorite artists are.” At the moment, he’s reading everything he can about Ikat and Aboriginal art, as well as Persian miniature painting—all of which influence his current body of work.
The walls of the studio’s main room, lit by large windows, were lined with the paintings, arranged in chronological order, that would soon be on display in the museum. Those familiar with Ambrose’s abstract paintings will be surprised to see his earliest hyperrealist paintings.
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.
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 and couldn’t go out to play, his family placated him with reams of paper on which he would draw animals, mostly fish.
Not expecting anyone could make a living at painting, he pursued an art history major at Muhlenburg College. Ambrose was 20 when his paternal grandmother died and left him money with which to explore 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. It was at that moment, in 1980, that he discovered himself as an artist.
“It was a golden moment,” he recounts, during which he understood that if he worked hard and used his eyes, he could see how to find solutions.
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. A guest lecturer, the painter Alex Katz, told Ambrose to work harder.
And he did.
With lace hanging around the studio—doilies, anti maccassars and the like; people just give these things to him—he had a breakthrough, stitching together the pieces to suggest European architecture, gessoing the constructions to canvas.
“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…”
Ambrose learned to sew by watching his parents and grandparents, tailors and dressmakers, and his mother helped to reinforce what he tacked together. Sewing is a drawing technique, he says.
From there, he began making his own lace canvases, painting the front and pushing paint through apertures from the back. These are diminutive and joyful, like threads of color in original intricate medallions with twinkling sparkles of light.
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.
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.
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.”
“It all comes back to sewing,” says Ambrose.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.