Editor's note: The photographs below contain nudity.
I discovered the work of Aleah Chapin while perusing the New York Academy of Art's MFA show in 2012, and I was instantly moved by her painterly skill and subject matter. Throughout her recent "Aunties" series, Chapin wields nudity in a novel way to honor and empower her subjects.
While paintings like "Auntie" and "Momo" are more or less straight-forward, richly detailed nudes, they hardly come across as stiff or academic. The cool, overall lighting and minimal white backgrounds, accented with abstract, expressive marks, place the aunties squarely in a modern perspective. The context saves the nudity from coming across as an unintentional consequence of painting in a traditional paradigm, i.e., it keeps the painstakingly rendered bodies fresh. Yet while the paintings resist an antiquated tone, the imagery brings to mind an ancient earth-mother archetype, within whom authority and flesh are intrinsically bound. Even more so in group portraits like "Step" and "Twoness," the women take on an unearthly, goddess-like status, and the nudity begins to feel like simply their most natural state of being. The women press and lean against each other, creating a communal embrace and the impression of mutual acceptance. Their un-self-conscious, ungraceful gestures express total ease, reinforcing a sense of every day normalcy within these worlds.
Collectively, the paintings suggest a non-literal, transcendental place that can be reached through family, or simply community. Teetering on the edge of geometric, abstract shapes, the bare-bones landscape featured in several paintings conjures an idea of place more than it describes a physical location. By abstracting the landscape, Chapin encourages a non-literal interpretation of the "place" where the aunties are unified and grounded.
Mostly, the paintings represent a personal project. The aunties are a group of women who've been part of Chapin's life since birth, and, in the artist's own words, the series "examines [her] personal history through the people who have shaped it." But there is also a social commentary embedded in the work. As Daniel Maidman brought up in his Huff Post review this January:
"... Chapin won the BP Portrait Award last year, an important British award...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."
Aleah Chapin must have anticipated these reactions to the series. In fact, I can't help but read this entire body of work as, in part, a tremendous response to our culture's unbalanced valuation of women. The Aunties series celebrates the wisdom and authority that comes with age and experience and denies our cultural impulse to "cover up" the older, venerable body. Moreover, throughout the Aunties series, a woman's nakedness indicates self-possession and truth, a rare and powerful sight in contemporary painting. Yet the beauty of Chapin's work is that it remains uncluttered with agenda. The cultural reflection is more like the back side of the coin, or an afterthought yoked to a poignant interpretation of family.
Aleah Chapin's Aunties Project is currently on view at Flowers Gallery in New York through February 23, 2013, 529 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011.
All images courtesy of the artist.