The Space Between Us: Aleah Chapin at Flowers Gallery

Biosphere, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in, 2023

By DANIEL MAIDMAN October 10, 2023

As much as art is about expressing a vision, it is also about mastering the means of expression. Each artist compiles his or her own unique means of expression. The vision and the means are related to each other. The vision summons the means, and the means specifies and modifies the vision. 

A serious, practicing artist will eventually master his or her means of expression, and the hour of mastery ends with a moment of decision: continue to do the same, or move on? 

One artist may find that he has much of his vision left to say. He will delight in having achieved, at long last, the means of saying exactly what he means. 

Another artist may find that with mastery of the means, she has completed the expression of her vision. She will feel driven to find not only new means, but a new vision. 

I see Aleah Chapin as a hybrid of these types. I first encountered her work in 2012, when she was still in graduate school. She was refining her already-accomplished technique, painting large, extremely fleshly nudes. Her small, active brush marks and clean, distinct color mixes gave her figures a sense of animation at the most shockingly corpuscular level. Their flesh seemed to seethe with motion and life. 

As she practiced, she built upward from this cellular vision to depictions of psychology, mood – personality. Her Auntie paintings consisted of oversized nudes of women of her mother’s generation. These were portraits of the women who helped raise her in a radical, intentional community which has ebbed and flowed in semi-seclusion on Whidbey Island for decades now.

Auntie, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas, 58 x 38 in, 2011

I’ve been writing about Chapin almost as long as she’s been showing work. I wrote about the Auntie paintings and had the privilege of spending some time with the aunties. One can interpet life in all sorts of ways. The aunties seemed to me to see life as a form of energy. They share a vibrant quality. One catches, in their sparkling company, some hint of the land and air and sea of their home, and of their participation in it as in a single field of living energy.

It is a short leap from this attitude toward life, to Chapin’s vision of the body, of consciousness emerging from the active flesh.

When the first round of Auntie paintings was complete, Chapin began to expand her compositional ambitions, working with environments and multiple figures. This allowed her to express interaction, community, and the relationship of her people and their landscape. 

There Were Whispers Among The Branches, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas, 88 x 70 in, 2017 

During this period, her color became less clinical and more expressionistic. The full spectrum of her depiction of flesh gave way to cold overcast washes, or hot flashes of sunset. 

She had mastered her means of expression and was approaching the outer limits of her vision. At the same time, she was very successful. Her work was recognizable, appreciated, expensive, and sought-after. This can create a real bind for an artist. After all, you already took the insane risk of becoming an artist and… it worked out. Are you going to throw it all away and roll the dice on your hard labor finding an audience a second time? Don’t forget that you’re definitely going to have to eat and pay the phone bill. 

Chapin threw it all away. 

Compelled by an inner restlessness, she began seeking a means of expressing living energy not as an echo in finely-rendered flesh, but directly, in itself. In an act of pure faith in the guidance of her muse, Chapin abandoned a decade or more of study and refinement. Chrysalis-like, she dissolved her high technique in a bath of paint, producing a series of beautifully improvisational studies, small and large, in which fragments of rendered figures emerged from flowing color fields and abstract gestural brushwork.

The Waking, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in, 2021

In these works, all of the elements of a new system were present but their butterfly order was not yet apparent. With the work in her new show, The Space Between Us, Chapin has made another leap. This leap has formal and thematic components, and I’d like to discuss each in detail.

At the formal level, she has achieved the seamless synthesis she was seeking of representational and abstract elements. 

The problem of synthesizing representation and abstraction has haunted art for a while now. We are all familiar with the isolated representational element floating in a field of brushmarks or of colors. One can also analyze the maturation of Rothko and Mondrian especially as a progression from representation to abstraction. In their intermediate paintings, representational and abstract elements are both present. However, the abstraction is chasing away the representation. Because abstraction is the younger mode and has more to prove, this chasing-away is the most common dynamic when both representation and abstraction are self-consciously included in the work. The full embrace of both modes has rarely, if ever, occurred. 

Even if one could find an artist who did love both modes, the problem of exactly how to do it is formidable. It is possible that there are many solutions. Chapin, at least, has found one.  

Consider her painting Collapsing Out from The Space Between Us: 

Collapsing Out, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in, 2023

Chapin’s solution is fundamentally mathematical. Compare her division of the plane with Escher’s Circle Limit III:

Circle Limit III, M.C. Escher, woodcut, 1959

Escher’s image is itself a whimsical interpretation of the Poincaré disk model, a projection of two-dimensional hyperbolic geometry into a circle. This is not an intuitive link on his part or mine – Escher was specifically aware of the Poincaré disk model, and this particular one inspired his Circle Limit series:

(6,4,2) triangular hyperbolic tiling [courtesy of Wikipedia ]

So Poincaré and Escher got there first for this general compositional idea. But I am awarding Chapin the prize for seeing how it could unite representational and abstract painting. She was the first who found her way to the potential of this geometry.  

In many ways, this parallels how we award the relativistic model of spacetime to Einstein. Did he come up with the math? No. That was Bernhard Riemann. Einstein simply saw its potential to describe the actual universe.  

(Amusingly, Riemann also came up with the Poincaré disk model – Poincaré popularized it.)

As I was saying, like Einstein, Chapin saw the potential hidden in a division of space which diminishes in area as it recedes toward its boundary. Look again at Collapsing Out. Large open areas occur at its center, and Chapin fills these with her rigorous, tight representation. Her only non-representational element here is her heavy outlining of forms. 

But as the eye moves out toward the edge of the composition, the open areas become ever narrower. And with each decrease, they shed representation. From complete torsos, they recede to fragmentary views of limbs, and then to tonal gradients, and finally to purely textural abstract brushstrokes. The cloisonné-like outlines remain throughout, asserting a flat hierarchy, an equality of importance for each area from the most representational to the most abstract.

This is an astonishing synthesis, a presentation of representation and abstraction as organically and necessarily related poles of a seamless continuum. I have never in my life seen anything like it. 

But Chapin is a humanist in a way that Escher is not. The formal breakthrough is only part of what she is seeking in her work. Her earlier paintings drew from and referred to her mother and her mother’s friends. She was seeking to locate and identify herself within a community and a place. She has not abandoned this impulse. Chapin’s mother, Deborah Koff-Chapin, is also an artist, and raised her daughter not only in the wilderness, but at the drawing table. Koff-Chapin’s “touch drawing” expresses, and has always expressed, a transcendental vision of the human individual as a barely-discernable node in a sea of moving energy.

Untitled (SC070), Deborah Koff-Chapin, etching ink on paper, 18 x 24 in, 1999

There are surprisingly few fundamentally distinct ways to conceptualize the human experience and the universe in relation to it. (For instance, I myself subscribe to the energy model, with the twist that I see the entire energy field as an idea in the mind of God. This has no implications for free will; my own ideas surprise me all the time, including this one, which I did not know I held until I asked myself about it just now.)  Regardless of Aleah Chapin’s background, the narrow range of models of humanity-and-the-cosmos means she could well have stumbled on the “sea of energy” metaphysic and found that it resonated with her. But her background is that it was offered to her by her mother as an inheritance, and in her new work, Chapin directly explores this metaphysic and the imagery which naturally arises from it. She has completed her portraits of her extended family, but has found a new path to work at defining herself and her outlook in the context of her ancestors.  

All of this lays the groundwork, as it were, for what exactly these paintings are about. I think they are about this set of propositions and questions: 

Let us suppose that the universe is indeed characterized by a vast and moving energy field, a life force. Then in this context – 

What is my nature as an individual? 

What is the nature of my encounter with other individuals? Is it possible to be together, and if so, in what does that togetherness consist? In an all-contacting energy field, is it even theoretically possible to be apart?

These are profound questions. More than that, they may be real. So what does Chapin find?

First Light, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in, 2023 

To me, this self-portrait addresses the first question: 

What is my nature as an individual?

In my mind, it tells a story. The story starts as follows: 

In the beginning was the womb, and the womb was light, and the womb was full of light.

From this primordial glare of brilliance, a world unfolds like a flower. The solipsistic composition yields a canvas which is entirely the self. An abstract core expands and refines into representation, until we come to two figurative elements which particularly repeat in Chapin’s work: feet, which seem always to represent grounding and connection to the Earth – and the face, which conveys emotion and thought. In First Light, the feet touch only each other because there is not yet an Earth for them to rest upon. And the eyes are squeezed shut – she is not sleeping or relaxing, but rather picturing something. I think she is picturing the world. Her face completes the circuit of the painting: the light created her and she in turn creates the light.

So in Chapin’s interpretation of the metaphysic, the individual has two natures – one nature is generalized and abstract and participates in the universal, and the other nature separates from the universal to form a unique personality which can be conveyed only through the tightest of representation.    

Now what about the second question? 

What is the nature of my encounter with other individuals? Is it possible to be together, and if so, in what does that togetherness consist? In an all-contacting energy field, is it even theoretically possible to be apart? 

Two paintings in this body of work give us her proposal on this subject. Consider Held/Holding:

Held/Holding, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in, 2023

In this composition, we see two figures joined in two ways: they are embracing, which speaks to individuality and choice. And their energetic selves, the ripples that expand out to the edge of the universe, are mixed. The painting suggests that togetherness is both a matter of choice and an essential quality of mere being. A second painting tends to reinforce this doctrine:

The Space Between Our Separateness, Aleah Chapin, oil on canvas (triptych,, 60 x 120 in, 2022

Here we see two figures who have decided to be separate from one another. In the cold and distinct light of the physical world, they appear to be apart. Each has one foot planted on that physical ground. But each also has one foot turned toward the warm, abstract, inward light at the center of the composition. Here at the center we see their energetic selves. Hints of hands reach toward one another.  The lines are tangled, but they all connect. At the conscious level, a choice has been made, and at the inherent and universal level, the opposite choice is compelled.  

In an all-contacting energy field, is it even theoretically possible to be apart? 

No, it isn’t. 


This feels like a lot of ideas and references to lay on the shoulders of some paintings. But, for me at least, one huge purpose of art is to stimulate ideas. I have been writing about Chapin’s work for over a decade now because I never stop having new and interesting ideas when I contemplate her art. What I’m writing here may not be what she intended, or even anything she would agree with, but I have no doubt it is a burden her tremendous paintings can bear. 

Aleah Chapin:

Deborah Koff-Chapin’s art:

Flowers Gallery:

Aleah Chapin, The Space Between Us, Flowers Projects, 41 Elizabeth Street, New York, 28 September - 28 October 2023 WM


Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnewsForbesW, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York. 

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