January 14, 2013
by Daniel Maidman
huffpost, via my sister Mary
A couple things it is useful, but not necessary, to know about Aleah Chapin when approaching her work.
First is a biographical detail. I’m not clear on the whole story, but I have the impression she was raised around her mom and her mom’s buddies, “the aunties,” and that the aunties are willing to consider alternative relationships with wearing clothing. So the women in Chapin’s paintings are the community in the midst of which she was raised. Her figures are people with whom she has a life-long relationship.
The second is a professional detail. Chapin attended the New York Academy of Art. This Warhol-cofounded school is, counterintuitively, one of the foremost centers of training in classical, representational painting in the United States. I didn’t go there myself, but I paint figures and I live in New York, so I run into NYAA grads all the time.
You can generally tell that NYAA grads went to NYAA from their work. They all have really strong technical skills, with a certain amount of painterly verve. They understand their tools well enough to deploy them for certain tricks. However, they had the same teachers, so they learned the same tricks, and these tricks, therefore, shout “NYAA.” More on this in a bit.
I am a huge fan of NYAA and what they stand for, but their program is a double-edged sword. It brings to mind Clement Greenberg’s famous remark about Edward Hopper: “If he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.” NYAA turns out only better painters. There is a lot of good art to be made in struggle against technical limitations. This kind of art-making is denied to NYAA’s graduates. They are all fantastic painters. And they all, therefore, face art’s sternest question naked: What am I going to paint?
Chapin has come up with some very good answers to this question. Here’s her painting “Shanti & Heather,” 2012:
Aleah Chapin, Shanti & Heather, oil on panel, 2012, 60″x48″
First, a few touches which read very NYAA to me:
This is a big, confident composition with imposingly large figures. The figures are lit by a soft, flat, frontal light which allows them to be rendered in terms of alternating passages of cool and warm colors, clustering around a middle gray. Texture is produced, especially in the legs, by side-by-side opaque and transparent highlights: some of the highlights are light-colored paint, and others are patches so thin the white panel ground shows through. The figures overall are built up by means of many unblended, slightly curving, parallel brushstrokes. Where the required level of detail falls in the background, paint is unhesitatingly applied in larger, flatter regions.
Every one of these properties of the painting is typical of NYAA training. Chapin does it better than anyone else I’ve seen, but most do it to one extent or another. Her talent and her skills are superior, but they are not what make her special. Her vision is. So let’s talk about what we see in this painting.
Here we have two naked older women. They are clearly physically vigorous, but their age is tending to give them the ape-like, barrel-bellied interchangeability of the old. That is, they do not look the same, but they do not look so different as perhaps they once did. One of them has had a mastectomy. The other has breasts of ordinary asymmetry. They are hanging out naked in a forest, as if they were naturists, or persistent hippies, or Wiccans of some sort. Their nudity does not seem to be such a huge big deal to them – their shoulders and arms are relaxed – but their chins are raised and their eyes hooded in their direct gaze at the viewer, suggesting that they are prepared to vigorously defend their position. Maybe it is not their position on nudity, but given that they’re not wearing anything, that’s the most obvious possibility.
Here’s what this painting says to me. These women, with their dynamic contrapposto stances, sun-lobstered chests, shaggy hair, direct gazes, and powerful hands, are, like Rubens’s Helene, self-possessed and self-willed. They are not humorless, but they are tough.
Aleah Chapin, Shanti & Heather (detail), oil on panel, 2012, 60″x48″These legible facets of their personality interact with their age and wounds to tell a story. The story is about confronting mortality, not by pretending it away, but by acknowledging it without making too much of it. These women seem to me to have decided that the best way to deal with aches and illness and decay is by going on living as well as possible, as long as possible. They do not believe that they are growing weak, or useless, or ugly, and they do not give a damn if we don’t feel the same way. The vital force of their belief acts upon our own belief. They like themselves and they like each other, and we cannot help liking them too. The way they live is admirable.
Look – I feel a little awkward making such a fuss about their age and its effects. I feel like these paintings are visitors from a world where this isn’t an issue, and I’m just proving how fallen our own world is. But here’s the thing: Chapin won the BP Portrait Award last year, an important British award, with a similar painting, and you should have seen the vitriol in the comment threads of online articles about the painting, the whining and bitching about “why do I have to look at this woman?” So – yes, it’s an issue (although there was a lot of praise in those threads too). Chapin and her subjects are making a distinct statement, and even though my interpretation may date itself over time, right now, it’s apropos: these are badass naked older women.