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January/February 2003


Fabric, Glitz, and Tattoos

Recent works by Ed Lambert delve deep
into popular culture.

By Dorothy Joiner

Charles Baudelaire said of the artist's role, "It is necessary to be of one's time." As if in accord with the poet's dictum, Edward Lambert began about a decade ago to look beyond the circumscribed ken of the academic fiber artist to focus on popular life, particularly on the burgeoning tattoo culture.

Lambert's long involvement with textiles began as an undergraduate when he silk-screened sorority and fraternity posters for spending money. After earning an M.F.A. at Cranbrook Academy of Arts, he joined the faculty at the University of Georgia in 1974, where he is now professor of art. (He has also taught frequently at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, where he serves on the Board of Advisors.) Though it always deals with fabric, Lambert's work has evolved over this time. For a number of years, he painted directly on silk, but he has done screen printing as well, this work characterized by multicolored interwoven lines.

Ya Wanna, Madonna, 1998; screen print on canvas; 4 by 3 feet.
It was the TV series Melrose Place that sparked Lambert's redirection toward the world of contemporary culture in which his university students really live. Collaborating with artist Mel Chin on set decorations for the series, Lambert made designs with politically charged messages: Safety Sheets (that is, bed sheets) bordered with hundreds of condoms, highlighting the AIDS epidemic; a quilt with an electrograph of the AIDS virus; paintings of endangered species; a bowling bag that reads "Don't ask; don't tell" in Spanish. Although the artists intended that their images be perceived only subliminally, the audience took far more cognizance of the sets than the two had anticipated. In 1997, works made for the show were exhibited first in Los Angeles, then in Korea. Devotees of the series not only remembered individual items but also identified particular episodes in which they appeared.

Fascinated by the "real" world he had encountered while working for TV, Lambert began to investigate tabloid newspapers, from which, he learned, 75% of Americans get much of their information. He discovered pop stars, wrestling, and tattooing. He befriended a local tattoo artist, started perusing magazines - of which about 20 are devoted to the art - and even attended a convention, though he felt singular as the only person without body art. Struck by the remarkable creativity of numerous practitioners, Lambert studied their designs and techniques. Bringing together his new awareness of popular culture and advances in computer technology, Lambert experimented boldly. His work now embraces glitzy icons of contemporary life, those who enjoy only momentary fame, as well as obscure "everymen" who derive status from tattooing their bodies.

In the tradition of Marimekko's using silk screen to print on fabrics rather than on paper, Lambert elects as his medium heavy cotton canvas because of its flexibility and movement. His large format demands work in stages [see 'Notes on Technique' below].

Among Lambert's super-famous subjects are Michael Jackson and Madonna. Framed by triplicated registers of red and gold striations running vertically, diagonally, and horizontally, the flamboyant Jackson turns toward the viewer, gazing upward, his right hand lifted in a languid greeting. Splotches of light replicate a flashbulb's dazzle against his dark, over-pretty features and coiffed curls. Surrounded by a similar frame at once dynamic and structured, Madonna basks in the adulation of unseen fans. Dressed in wine red as Evita, she waves at an imagined crowd. A second image of the star adumbrated behind the first shows her as a smiling woman without the historical guise.

Rodman Rules, 1998; screen print on fabric; 4.5 by 8 feet.

Lambert also chooses those whose fame is less enduring, such as Dennis Rodman. Along the lower register of Rodman Rules, reiterated silhouettes of the outrageous basketball player alternate with close-ups of his face in an Escheresque patterning. Above are less regularized but multiple images of the showman, whose exploits have included getting married in a woman's gown. To the right, as a blonde, he squats, fist against chin in an attitude akin to the traditional visionary pose. To the left, dressed only in swim trunks and a swirling cloak, Rodman lifts his feet as though dancing. And behind, he stands glaring at the viewer.

It is the contemporary tattoo culture, however, that most fascinates Lambert. Somewhat reminiscent of Magdalena Abakanowicz's Backs, the figures of Dragons Behind stand and squat, facing away from the viewer to display their remarkable tattoos. Hints of red relieve the gray-and-white expanse of decorated flesh. Body types are varied. The crouching figure on the right, repeated in the distance in the lower register, is portly, his torso almost a rectangle. The trinity of figures on the left are broad shouldered and muscle-bound. The lineup of men above, displaying an average physique with slightly rounded shoulders, seems to represent the everyday guy. Though the men are ordinary, their decorations are exotic: fierce tigers and savage dragons wrap around their bodies. These protective symbols borrowed from Asia recall the Japanese myth of the koi fish that swam upstream to become a dragon.

Celtic Illustration; screen print on canvas; 3.25 by 2.5 feet.

Following the lead of tattoo practitioners who borrow designs from early medieval manuscripts, Lambert did a series inspired by the Book of Kells. In Celtic Illustration, he begins with an evangelist's portrait. Repeating the image on the left, he substitutes a standing male for the saint, his hair long like that of his forebear, his body covered with intricate interlace and knot patterns drawn from the illumination. The man's twin, with the same mustache and curling hair, strides the two portraits, and enlarged interlace patterns cover the ground like a carpet. In another work, Lambert juxtaposes the portraits of all four evangelists. Repeating the images below, he substitutes a different contemporary male for each saint. Separating the vertical portraits, a Chinese-red border bleeds into the surrounding spaces.

Deco Dude reveals yet another source of inspiration for tattoo devotees: architectural decorations from Art Deco buildings. Hirsute and self congratulatory, Lambert's figure is projected against a riotous background patterned in shades of red. His arms are folded to display the elaborate designs encircling his body.

Deco Dude; screen print on canvas; 3.75 by 2.75 feet.
Though less flexible than human skin, fabric, pliant and forgiving, lends itself most readily to images of a culture given to restless displacement and ceaseless alteration. Most accept the glitzy stars and obstreperous sports heroes, but many balk at the atavistic practice of tattooing. They ask, why? When questioned about their motivation, Lambert observes, few aficionados of the craft are able to articulate cogent reasons for their attachment. Identifying the wearer with a tribal entity, tattooing in primitive cultures promises protection and belonging. Perhaps the rootless American feels the same need. In any case, Lambert has identified a flourishing phenomenon of "his time." Baudelaire would proffer a kudos.

Images courtesy of Connell Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia.


The artist in his studio.

Ed Lambert first scans into a computer images from popular magazines, together with those from the history of art, blowing them up with line or dot matrix software to achieve a linear quality somewhat like that of a traditional woodcut. This step is essential since silk screening does not allow printing of gradations; thus artists are limited to a series of dots or lines that give the illusion of a gray scale.

To create the silk screen, Lambert enlarges these simplified images by photocopy, applies them to a screen covered with photo emulsion, and exposes the image to ultraviolet light. The light hardens the emulsion except where the black marks of the image block the light. Flushing with water washes away those areas that have not solidified. The cleaned parts are then ready to be printed.

At this point, Lambert says, the procedure becomes much like painting on glass, building backward, with focal elements closest to the viewer put down first. He uses a squeegee to apply onto the silk screen polymer-based textile pigment, to which softening agents have been added for flexibility. He applies the screen to the canvas, thereby printing the image. A hair dryer speeds up the drying process. After printing an area, he covers it with masking tape before continuing. Some large works demand as many as 10 or 15 layers.

The images below demonstrate how Lambert created Contorted, Distorted, Reported, a 4.25- by 7.75-foot work made in 2000. The top two pictures show the building up of printed images. In the third picture, background spaces are being filled in with red and black pigment. In the fourth, the last white areas, which have been masked until now, are ready to be screened and painted. The bottom picture shows the finished piece.

Additional images, available only

Mystic Egyptian (detail below), 2001; screen print on cotton canvas; 52 by 94 inches.
Positive/Negative, Artist/Art (detail below), 2001; screen print on canvas; 85 by 48 inches.
Illuminated Evangelists (detailed views below); screen print on
canvas; 84 by 95 inches. Courtesy of Connell Gallery, Atlanta.
Disappearing into the Design; screen print on canvas; 54 by 95 inches.
Dragons Behind, 1999; screen print on canvas; 92 by 52 inches.
Tapestry Back; screen print on fabric; 48 by 40 inches.
Wacko, Jacko; screen print on canvas; 48 by 36 inches.

Dorothy Joiner is the Lovick P. Corn Professor of Art History at LaGrange College and directs the Summer Art Program in Bayeux and Paris, France, at the State University of West Georgia.

This article first appeared in:

Jan/Feb 2003

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