Chapel Chromatica: An Installation by Ellen Frances Tuchman

Essay by Tracee Robertson,
former director of The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Dallas, TX

Chapel Chromatica concludes a three-year exploration by Dallas artist Ellen Frances Tuchman. The installation is made up of plexiglas benches and twelve painted and beaded vellum panels that function as windows of color and light, providing emotive and symbolic access to months of the year. The panels are not quilts but are paintings that use the language of quilting—repetition, stitched accents, abstracted images that signify forms in nature and embellishment.
Chapel Chromatica is inspired by the Rothko Chapel at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas—an octagon shaped building that holds six monumental, darkly hued color field paintings by Mark Rothko from 1967 in a somber atmosphere that elicits quiet contemplation. For Tuchman, Chapel Chromatica is the counterpoint to the Rothko Chapel. She describes it as a celebration of light and color and of the seasonal changes in nature, inspiring reflection about our place in this cycle. Also important are elements of kitsch—mass produced elements (in this case, certain beads and color choice) that signify a particular month by calling to mind popular traditions or media images and add an element of humor and a new discovery upon every visit.
Each painting begins with a bead—a vintage cabashon (a non-faceted stone often found in costume jewelry), a 1950s plastic corn husk, an iridescent sequin—specifically pulled from Tuchman’s vast collection to represent both the color and the idea of a given month (each knowingly surrendered to cliché). Using the computer software AutoCAD, Tuchman creates particular shapes within a two-inch square (her ‘quilt block’) designed to hold a specific bead and a unique color assignment that is repeated square after square. The beads are stitched onto the vellum in arrangements that create organic, abstracted forms, morphing from tree roots to ice crystals as the panels move through the four seasons. Similarly, color is chosen for the way it makes us feel and for its botanic relation to the various months. Shades are applied with powdered pigment, acrylic and color pencil. Lightly shaded vertical lines suggest eternity, while shimmering horizontal lines represent the time and tone of morning, noon and night.
Tuchman’s work is both beautiful and complex. She was trained in fiber arts, learning to weave textiles and to use silkscreen to transfer painted imagery onto fabric surfaces. She has utilized repeated geometric pattern throughout her career, and the notion of a repeat is mathematical, musical and visual in her paintings. Her methods are informed by early childhood lessons influenced by the theories of Friedrich Froebel, an 18th century German educator who developed the premise that play leads to skilled activity. For Tuchman, visual exercises that conveyed mathematic concepts have developed into a life-long application of color theory, pattern and collage in eye-catching detail.
Chapel Chromatica is a portal through which the methods of the quilt artist can be compared to those of the fine artist. Important in Tuchman’s paintings is her process—collecting, developing series, placing the personal and emotional into the order and rhythm of repeated pattern and building each piece layer by layer. Her work is smart, with touches of kitsch and wry comments on history, art and nature. It is simultaneously purposeful as solving a math problem is purposeful and intuitive as knowing one’s connection to the Earth, to history and to other human beings is intuitive. So too does the quilt artist work.

Chapel Chromatica, a three-year exploration by Dallas artist Ellen Frances Tuchman, consists of sixteen painted and beaded vellum panels that function as windows of color and light, providing emotive and symbolic access to months of the year and the passage of time. The panels are mixed media, embellished paintings that use the language of quilting — repetition, stitched accents, and abstracted images that signify forms in nature. Inspired by the Rothko Chapel in Houston, as well as the Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Vienna Secession Museum, this installation is a celebration of seasonal changes, inspiring reflection about our place in this cycle.

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