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
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.
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.
|Ya Wanna, Madonna, 1998; screen print on canvas;
4 by 3 feet.
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
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
|Rodman Rules, 1998; screen print on fabric; 4.5 by
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
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.
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
|Deco Dude; screen print on canvas; 3.75 by 2.75 feet.
Images courtesy of Connell Gallery, Atlanta,
NOTES ON TECHNIQUE
|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
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.