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Shedding New Light: Chandelier Paintings Brighten Mondavi

Nancy Willis has spent a lot of time in the last few years looking up. As an artist who also works as a chef and teaches at The Culinary Institute of America, the dinner table has always played an important role in her work (she once had a video installation of a post-dinner-party-table — candles flickering, cheerful, intoxicated chatter coming from the next room, a kitten snooping for leftovers — on display at Sundance during the film festival).

Frolic by Nancy Willis (60x42”)

But it’s not what happens on the table that currently interests her the most, but rather, what goes on above it. “I experience everything as a painter,” says Willis. “You change the light, the color, everything changes.” Chandeliers — beautiful objects on their own, that have been around for centuries — became the subject for a new exhibit (opening at Mondavi Winery on March 18th) because of the profound influence they have on changing the experience at the table.

Willis, who throws her share of dinner parties at her St. Helena home, says “It’s all about creating expectations. The dinner party is an intimate situation, but all these other things are happening around the table, under the table — we all eat the same food but have completely different experiences.” The chandelier, as an adorned conduit of light, filters that experience, setting the mood and changing the way we see each other, the food, the silverware, everything.

Eternal by Nancy Willis (60x42")

Traveling extensively through France and the United States Willis saw a fair amount of chandeliers. From the Alpine Lodge to Versailles, she says her series is inspired from a collective memory of the restaurants, hotels, palaces and cathedrals she has visited. More important than capturing each intricate detail of the object, Willis uses light and color to recreate the feeling and mood surrounding — and created by — the chandelier.  Her painting Melancholy (a detail of which is featured at top) creates a sense of longing and alludes to one of the ongoing themes in Willis’ work, the correlation to female beauty. “Women do get melancholy,” says Willis. “And that doesn’t mean they’re crazy.” Frolic, you might say, could be the same woman on a different day: cheerful, full of movement and laughter, girlish, even flirtatious.

In Eternal the chandelier sits low in the frame, drawing the eye upward to the glow of orange and bronze light reflecting off the ceiling. Reminiscent of the awe and reverence one feels when entering a cathedral, Willis hopes the painting provides “a kind of grounded strength.”

Day for Night: Paintings and Prints from the Chandelier Series will be on view at Robert Mondavi Winery from March 18 through May 8.