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Daughter of the Wild Women: Aleah Chapin at Flowers Gallery

01/14/2013 08:00 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2013

INCARNATION

To sensibly discuss Aleah Chapin's new solo show at Flowers Gallery, we should start closer to the beginning of the story. So let's back up a bit.

The Torre de la Parada, outside Madrid, 1636 A.D.

Peter Paul Rubens hangs a commissioned pair of Greek-philosopher paintings on the wall of this royal hunting lodge. One is Heraclitus, "the crying philosopher":

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Diego Velazquez is born a couple decades after Rubens, but they are active at the same time, and even hang out together and admire some Titian paintings.

Not long after Rubens finishes with his philosophers, Velazquez gets commissioned to paint two more paintings, to hang opposite the Rubens pieces. Any self-respecting artist presented with such a commission is going to try to one-up the existing work, and Velazquez is no exception. Here's his Aesop, of 1640:

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To my uneducated eye, the contrast between these two paintings represents a revolution. Your instinct is to say that Rubens paints a type, striking a pose, and Velazquez an individual, displaying a posture. And this is a fair description. But I think the distinction is more profound, and occurs at a more basic level. Rubens concocts his characteristically magnificent swirl of paint, rich, bold, expressive. Velazquez, on the other hand, conforms his range of values and distribution of detail to the ordinary cognitive template of the human eye sweeping a scene. There is something restful and real to the Velazquez which makes Heraclitus look as stylized as a Saturday morning cartoon. With his absurd tears rolling down his cheeks. It is difficult to look at the Velazquez, and then to look back at the Rubens.

"Technology" does not mean the same thing as "machine." All means by which human intellection intervenes in the raw operation of nature are in some sense technologies. Painting is a technology. Strictly, it is a technology of representation (we can talk about abstract art another day). Velazquez's revolution is a technological revolution. He invents a new set of tools for matching the mechanism of human sight. This invention makes Rubens, as a technologist, obsolete. The manipulation of visual cognition in mainstream painting, for centuries after, follows after Velazquez.

This is not an unmitigated good. No one set of tools can do everything. Velazquez's tools are mighty tools, but they have limits. Compare two more paintings. Here is what Rubens makes of Mars:

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Mars and Rhea Silvia, c. 1620

This Mars is vigorous, brightly colored, fleshy and strong -- well-suited to the active role he plays in the narrative of the painting overall. Now here is what Velazquez does with the subject:

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Mars, c. 1640

Velazquez's warrior drops out of narrative. His face is nearly lost in shadow. He is much more believable as a human figure, and he radiates a crouching menace Rubens will never capture.

Velazquez's mechanism is not so good for depicting motion, narrative, and allegory -- Velazquez marks the beginning of the long decline of allegory. He generates a paradox: he makes the depiction of flesh more real, but makes the invoking of Flesh less possible. We see this fairly clearly in the depiction of the muscles of men. But we see it most clearly in the depiction of the curves of women. Consider Velazquez's tongue-unrolls, hearts-pop-from-eyeballs depiction of Venus:

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The Rokeby Venus, 1644-8

She's got a nice ass, but we are very close now to the genre of model-in-the-studio-dolled-up-with-a-couple-props-as-mythology-painting. Now go back to Rubens, painting his second wife Helene Fourment:

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The Fur, 1630s

This painting is not as realistic as the Velazquez painting. Rubens natters on about her cellulite. She's more tactile than Velazquez's sleek model. I bring it up because of this, and further because it includes a detail which is nearly unique, in my knowledge, in the history of Western art: a woman taking an action on her own body which causes her nipples to point in noticeably different directions.

A lot of art (and, frankly, life) is about breasts, so this is worth talking about a bit. Throughout the history of art, from Willendorf on down, there is a kind of horror at the idea of asymmetrical breasts. In real life, of course, most women have minor or major breast asymmetries, and many actions will cause the kind of soft-tissue elastic deformation seen in Rubens's "The Fur." But for all of the obsession of Western art with the body, and especially with the breasts part of the body, this particular phenomenon is hardly ever seen. Not even in Madonna-nursing-Jesus paintings:

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Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, Jean Fouquet, 1452

It is nearly unthinkable for Velazquez to do what Rubens does so casually in "The Fur." Just as asymmetrical breasts in a classical Greek sculpture would read as an insult to its symmetrical sculpture-as-Idea ethos, so they would be all-too-real in Velazquez, too distracting from the noble and detached emotions we are supposed to be experiencing when we look at art. If Velazquez pulled a stunt like this, it would come across as porn from the age of mustaches. Because Velazquez has amped up the realism of his portrayals, he has ironically restricted his subject matter -- things depictable using Rubens's blunter technology become overpowering with Velazquez's more refined tools. Velazquez is dainty in a way that Rubens is not.

Let's return to "The Fur." It is not only important that Helene takes a pose most painters refuse to depict. It is also important that this pose is not imposed upon her. Consider Agnolo Bronzino's erotic masterpiece, "Naked Lady Getting Felt Up By Lad":

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Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time [Allegory of the Triumph of Venus]
Agnolo Bronzino, 1540-5

Here we have some champion breast-groping, but being classically minded, it has two features absent from Rubens: almost no asymmetry results, and the actual possessor of the breast in question plays a physically passive role.

Rubens, to me, represents the zenith of what I would call incarnation in painting. His work is carnal, he ardently depicts human beings as flesh, as meat. Velazquez has lost some of this quality, with his emphasis on the mechanism of perception. Rubens does not care as much about perception -- he carries a stronger inheritance of the older premise of the thing-in-itself. He is modern in the complexity of his understanding of forms, but ancient in his understanding of the meaning of forms. His forms are not carnal alone, not only meat - the soul is placed in this voluptuous flesh, it is incarnate. It is a self-willed principle, acting on its vessel and on the world around it. Rubens says to Helene, "Helene, dearheart, would you pose for a nude?" And Helene says, "Sure thing, Pookie-Bear - how about this?"

Perhaps Rubens says, "Honey, that pose is making your boobs point in different directions." And perhaps Helene says, "How much of a fuck do you think I give?"

But more likely, I think, Rubens says, "Perfect, I love it. Hold that -- don't change a thing."

This network of concepts came to mind when I saw the headline painting, "Step," in Aleah Chapin's new solo show:

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Aleah Chapin, Step, oil on canvas, 2012, 74"x61"

IN THE COMPANY OF OLDER WOMEN

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:

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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.

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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.

Now we return to "Step":

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Aleah Chapin, Step, oil on canvas, 2012, 74"x61"

This is probably Chapin's most ambitious painting to date: a vibrating interaction of multiple overlapping figures. Here we move beyond the depiction of the individual to a portrayal of "the aunties" as a community of like-minded longtime friends. Like each of us, they retain a young self-image, awakening to their age only intermittently. They have been running around naked on the heath forever, rowdy as the maenads that gave Orpheus such a hard time.

We'll talk about breasts one last time. Just like Helene, the auntie on the left takes a self-willed action which causes asymmetrical elastic deformation of her breast. It's a weird, nearly comical turn. I asked a female friend what the gesture said to her, and she said, "Intimacy." For my part, it talks to me about total self-confidence, about flinging your body around because it does its job fine and it's yours to do with as you please. What's so special or new about this idea? Nothing. It's just that this mode of expressing it has almost never been done in painting.

There is something cartoonish to this work, just as there is to Rubens. The light is centered, but it is too centered, reflecting off the dead center of each form -- just as it does in Rubens. A flat overall glow prevents any point from growing too bright, or too dark -- as in Rubens. The less important passages are sketched in, not with the indistinctness of Velazquez, but with the illustrationistic minimalism of Rubens. The composition swirls around dynamic figures in a way characteristic of Rubens, not Velazquez. The flesh is not depicted, as in Velazquez; instead, the Flesh is lustily invoked, as Rubens invokes it.

Here we have Chapin's answer to the urgent question of what to do with the powerful tools she has earned with her education. She turns her back on hundreds of years of the mainstream of figuration, from Velazquez, to Manet, to Sargent. She revives an older technology, a technology with a humanism that gives her the vocabulary she needs to express her insight.

She herself emerges from an eccentric microculture, a hermetic and vital sisterhood with its own unique mix of affection, strength, humor, and self-confidence. Chapin, in some psychologically pressing way, is the communal daughter of myth-like women, and she turns to the visual idiom of myth in order to paint her inheritance. This idiom, the Rubens idiom, happens to be highly compatible with the painterly skills she acquired in graduate school. So she rivets them together, because for now, at least, she needs to set down on canvas what makes these women and their lives so special.

This is such a wonderful thing to get a chance to look at.

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All non-Chapin paintings via wikipedia.org or wikipaintings.org

All Chapin paintings courtesy Flowers Gallery

"Aleah Chapin: Solo Show" opening January 17th, 6-8 p.m., exhibition through February 23rd, 529 West 20th St., New York, NY, 10011