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Figure as Flow: Erin Anderson and Aleah Chapin

"Karen Looking,"  oil on copper, 21.5" x 18”

The Human System
Dacia Gallery
53 Stanton St, New York, NY 10002
April 6 - 30, 2016 

Body / Being
Flowers Gallery 
529 West 20th Street New York NY 10011
May 12 – June 11, 2016

By DANIEL MAIDMAN,
JUNE 2016 

All too many years ago, I took gross anatomy. I spent four semesters cutting up and drawing human bodies. This was a good fraction of my education in becoming a figurative painter. Before I explored the interior of the body for myself, my idea of it came from well-labeled illustrations. Direct experience put the lie to these right away. The body is a mess. Most of its structures are not distinct. It takes training and a subtle eye to distinguish the tissues and organs.

On the other hand, the body is full of immediate and obvious evidence of motion. It is not clear where muscles and fascia start and end, but they are striated in their axes of flex and stretch. Skin, bones, organs, all show traces of persistent folding, pulling, and pressing — wrinkles, sags, depressions, bruises and rubbed-off bits.

It might be said that an intuitive impression of the body is defined more by its flow than its form. The form is indecipherably intricate, but the flow is simple, clear, and direct.

Memories of this startling early encounter came to mind when considering work in two new shows of figurative paintings, by Erin Anderson and Aleah Chapin. In their own ways, each of these young artists depicts human nature in terms of flow rather than form.

Anderson’s show, The Human System, which has unfortunately already closed at Dacia Gallery, consists of a group of figurative oil paintings on copper.

 "Heather," oil on copper, 36”x30”

Those warm streaks in the background are scratches, where the paint has been incised and the copper shows through.

Let me give you my response to this purely as a painter first. Anderson’s technique is mind-bogglingly strong. She builds up her images gradually, in delicate layers, so that the final depiction has a mottled smoothness far removed from the coarse reality of the brush. It is not Vermeer-smooth, but the general technique and final effect (and lighting) are not dissimilar. There is a photographic quality to the rigor of her image, but one would never take it for a photograph. There is a sense of falling into, of things inside and things behind, which distinguishes it from the flattened hierarchy of surfaces in a photograph. I like my own set of tools and techniques as a painter, but I feel a sense of limitless envy in confrontation with the lucid clarity of Anderson’s figures. 

"Heather," oil on copper, 36”x30” (detail)

But, further, to look at her work is to experience a sense that this is what skill is for. Skill is not for itself; skill is the servant of vision, and must be tailored to the vision it serves. The enormous vocabulary of Anderson’s skill demands a vision to match it, and Anderson does not fail in meeting this challenge.

"Mark Weathers the Storm," oil on copper, 48" x 36”

Her people are not necessarily formally beautiful, but their depiction is so loving that one is able to detach the eye from that semi-pornographized estimate of sexual utility with which our image-culture contaminates sensibility. Her people read as intensely beautiful simply because they are human beings. This is what we call humanity. Anderson’s skills give humanity not to her subjects, who already possess it, but to her viewers. She restores our ability to see, and with it, feeds our souls, which are starved from having lost their ability to love the real.

"Kim With Turbulence No.2," oil on copper, 36” x 30”

Now, what is the deal with the copper streaks? They represent Anderson’s solution to a problem which bedevils every really focused figurative painter: what to do with the background. Because, really, who cares. Some solution must be found though, because the background goes stubbornly on existing. Anderson has been working toward this solution for several years now.

"Emanation No. 2" (2013), oil on copper, 36” x 30”  

As you can see, she was already scratching down to the copper in 2013. But to my eye, her earlier idiom is less successful. Because it is simple and diagrammatic, it lends itself to literary reading, to running out and looking up hermetic symbolism so that the “meaning” of the painting can be decoded. That is, it leads one to look for the meaning of the painting outside the painting, and therefore to not really see the painting at all.

Contrast that with the current work, in which the scratches are so dense as to resemble hair or the sea, but clearly do not have a specific semiotic intent. 

"Felix," oil on copper, 6” x  9”  

In her solution to the background problem, Anderson’s work touches on that flow which I saw in the orientation of striated muscle fibers in my cadavers. She depicts human beings as solid and distinct objects, and yet they are immersed in an oceanic flow, an unceasing movement of energy, which binds them to their worlds and to one another. In fact, she makes her scratches across multiple paintings at once, so that groups of paintings hold supercompositions which are invisible in individual pieces.

Left to right: "Karen’s Story," "Felix Looking Backward," "Heather," "Kim with Turbulence" 

It would be easy to think of these as paintings from the past, from a period before television and internet, before whitened teeth and spin classes and hair conditioner and touch-up cosmetic surgery. People, after all, took delight in the sight of one another in the age on age of bad hair, stained teeth, and pocked skin which preceded our own. But this is not how the paintings read. They read as paintings of the future, when we have lost or let go the vanities of our foolish present. They are hopeful paintings, hopeful that we will learn to abandon the luxuries that have made us so lonely and sad and inconsequential.

In an embarrassment of riches, we also have Body/Being, a show with broadly similar themes at Flowers Gallery, of the latest body of work by Aleah Chapin. I have written about her before, and the esteem in which I hold her art only goes on increasing. There is a solar radiance to Chapin’s paintings which one will not encounter anywhere else. In the new pieces, enormous naked figures (they would be 9 or 10 feet tall if she painted to their feet) stand isolated against featureless white backgrounds.

"Kara" (2015), oil on canvas, 84” x 50” 

As with Anderson, Chapin has little interest in the criteria of formal beauty bestowed on us by our degenerate popular culture. As with Anderson’s people, there may be some overlap between their beauty and the popular caricature of beauty, but where there is, it’s accidental, and irrelevant. Consider her Kara, with her bulging thighs and not especially narrow waist, her lovingly observed armpit hair and soft belly and the irregular spread of pigmentation from her aeroleae. Has a painting ever come closer to jiggling? Could its fleshy presence, could the confidence and humor and invitation in Kara’s expression be any sexier?

Chapin applies her overwhelming tools of sight and depiction to several phases of the human experience. In "Rachel and Wes," a mother holds her baby.

"Rachel and Wes" (2015), oil on canvas, 84” x 50”  

Consider first the details which Chapin’s command of anatomy allows her to catch. The tensor fasciae latae and IT band bulge subtly in Rachel’s hip where she supports her off-balance weight. They rise into an iliac crest half-hidden by subcutaneous fat. Her belly is still distended from her pregnancy. Wes is newborn-pink, with silky newborn hair and the skinny limbs of infants who have not had much time nursing yet. These details, so rewarding in themselves, are exemplars of skill, and in Chapin’s case as well, skill is the servant of vision. Chapin’s vision is of a mother cradling her son to her breast, supporting his head, warming his chill, protecting his helplessness; she looks down at him, entirely absorbed. This is a painting so thoroughly about this one kind of love, that there is nothing else in it.

Contrarily, consider "Qwill."

"Qwill" (2015), oil on canvas, 84” x 50”  

I am, in general, not a fan of the political in art. I tend to advocate for a cooling off period to boil away those partisan passions that commandeer art-making, which is supposed to liberate us, for mere point-scoring, which seeks to capture us. All proposed rules in art, however, prove ineffective against sufficiently good artists. In this painting, and others in the show, Chapin tackles a topic of current political contest, the transgendered individual. Qwill follows a path opposite to that of Rachel. Their breasts will never enfold or sustain an infant, because they have had them removed. They do not stand in easy contrapposto like Rachel, but rather take a symmetrical, straight-backed martial posture. The light-source in their world is not Rachel’s chest-level warm glow, but a cold light from above, casting their eyes into shade. Chapin observes Qwill’s scars and unease, and pride and bravery. She sidesteps the hectoring quality of political art, and the use of the transgendered as pawns, as objects of utility, by both sides of the current debate about their role in society; she does it by maintaining in her approach to Qwill the same broad human love she brings to all her subjects. She allows Qwill to be simply human, an individual first and a representation of a group or idea later, if at all.

A further note on this broad human love in Chapin’s work. Consider her painting "Roger," depicting a slender old man, his eye sharp, chin lifted, and body collapsing on itself only as much as it must.

"Roger" (2015), oil on canvas,  84” x 50”

Chapin here depicts many of those elements which socialization and innate fear of mortality most teach us to recoil from. Roger’s forehead is spotted, his eyes part-hidden under hardened, sagging lids. His neck is densely folded, his breast sinks, his rib cage resting on his belly has produced a permanent webbing of the skin. His belly button droops into a massively wrinkled lower belly. His testicles are thickly furred.

Bring to mind, if you will, Lucien Freud. Freud too was a close observer of those details of the body which repel us. And yet Freud was a pervert, which is to say, he was repelled by what he sought to see, and fed on his repulsion. He was obsessed with his own disgust. There is an ever-present quality of hate and of horror in his paintings of heavy flesh. Chapin, by contrast, teaches us not to fear and despise the corruption of the body. Her unflinching gaze, her Kubrickian centered figures and flat light, are the tools of a majestic and unfailing love.

What is the difference between Freud and Chapin? I believe it is this: that Freud is a materialist. He believes that the human being begins in the body and is limited to the body — that when we speak of humanity, we are ultimately speaking of meat. He is a materialist, but he cannot bear his own materialism. It torments him. He craves escape from it, but he cannot see any exit from the prison of meat save destruction, a destruction he depicts in its step-by-step progress over the days and years of long life. Chapin is not a materialist. She depicts human nature as a thing which begins before the body and survives it. The body for her is a station on a tremendous journey, an imperfect station to be celebrated in its strengths, and treated tenderly in its weaknesses, but either way, a single part of a much larger whole. If she endlessly depicts the nude body, it is only because this is the one part of the human journey which is immediately visible and comprehensible. Chapin the artist is a teacher.

Returning to the model of the body, not as object, but as flow, we see Chapin’s application of the principle in her work. While Anderson invokes flow in the ground, Chapin moves it into the figure. Her gargantuan paintings only look photorealistic on a computer. In person, the roles of marks and paint are foregrounded. Chapin makes marks consistent with the direction of flow of the body. You can get a sense of it here, in "Cece."

"Cece" (2015), oil on canvas, 84” x 50”

The marks from which her Cece is built are consistent with the tensions and textures of her flesh. They elongate into punctuated arabesques when they follow the stretch-marks on her thighs. They turn short and horizontal where her belly stretches her skin. They curve over her arms, following the direction of her muscles. They become little rounds where they lie over the distinct nodes of fat and glands in her breasts. They stretch out, small and smooth, over the tight skin and prominent bone of her chin, cheeks, and forehead. From a distance,"Cece" appears to be a depiction of structure, but standing before it, there is almost nothing but flow.

Chapin and Anderson both draw on the physiological flow of the human body to evoke the metaphysical flow of human identity in a vast and active universe. They invest life on Earth with dignity, without privileging it beyond what it can support. In identifying its role as sacred but subordinate, they remind the viewer of the real stakes of being.

I am going through a happy season of art-viewing. As with the work of so many painters lately — Jenny Morgan and Andrew Sendor, Inka Essenhigh and Odd Nerdrum — I am renewed in my sense of the scope of the possible, when I look at Anderson’s and Chapin’s paintings. Anderson and Chapin have pushed the depiction of the figure so far, with such ambition and discipline, that they broke new ground in their treatment of the oldest subject. Each, in her own way, teaches how to reclaim the eye and heart from the vagaries of the age. Their work begins in this, but the value of the work is not contingent on a contemporary context. Imagine a viewer who approaches the work already in full possession of his or her faculties. This viewer too has much to learn: a deeper perspective, a greater forbearance, a humbler self-evaluation —more of the elements required by the ancient and uncompletable demand that we learn to see and love one another. WM

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.

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