Review: Canvas minus the painting: the label-defying art of Frances Trombly


What confident trespassers, the works of Frances Trombly. Sculptures, weavings, installations -- they meander into all sorts of territory, straddling genre lines and tunneling through hierarchical divides. They make a quietly defiant case for the complex richness of multiplicity, simultaneity.

The title of a 2011 exhibition catalog from a show in Florida, where she lives, coyly identifies her stance: “Frances Trombly: Paintings.” The work in that show was and was not painting; painting was acknowledged and at the same time negated. A similar dynamic is at play in the selection of Trombly’s work from the last four years at Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

These are not works on canvas but of canvas, sculptures centered on swaths of handwoven cotton. Several riff on the basic format of painting -- its physical support, planar surface and presence on the wall.


For “Blank Canvas” (2012), Trombly stretches fabric onto an 80-by-60-inch frame, as if laying the conventional groundwork for a painting. Here, though, the surface is not the vehicle for an event to come but the event itself, not latent but complete. There are nubs and irregularities in the undyed cotton, subtle stripes and interruptions in the field, indications of the idiosyncratic work of the hand. The piece reads as a monochrome painting by other means, and also as an exploration of the grid, a la Agnes Martin. Its silence is full.

The show abounds in such intellectual elegance. In “Loose Canvas With Pink Embroidery” (2016), Trombly mounts bare wood stretcher bars on the wall, painting’s universal bone structure exposed. She drapes a length of natural, handwoven cotton, like a detached pelt, over the frame. It presses lightly against the wall. Only a small, pale rose triangle folded over the top edge faces us, as if a private disclosure.

Trombly’s freestanding floor works, too, are in spirited dialogue with forms of making and display. In a 2016 piece, a long ribbon of woven cloth patched with magenta cascades over a 33-inch plywood cube. The ensemble brings to mind a partially-covered ceremonial altar or an adorned exhibition pedestal, and most fruitfully, the uncanny conflation of the two. Whatever associations it sparks, it is also a beautifully spare composition of mass, fluid plane and color.

“Over and Under” (2013) invokes the basic rhythm of weaving on a Brobdingnagian scale. Aluminum scaffolding more than 13 feet high serves as the loom; a broad stripe of cloth (half undyed, half shot through with acid yellow rayon) swoops back and forth, from top to bottom.

A certain stealth has been part of Trombly’s practice, especially in her fiber sculptures that mimic everyday objects made of other materials. The works here don’t engage illusion as much as implicit assumptions about where fiber (woven by hand, with fringed ends, no less!) belongs in the general scheme of things. The answer -- as with clay, similarly liberated from the craft ghetto -- is anywhere it wants. Even if traditional boundaries between high and low and between one genre and another aren’t as fiercely defended as they once were, Trombly’s work feels bold and surprising. It latches to the mind like a burr and doesn’t let go.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through April 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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