Friday, March 29, 2013

The Sign

It is since July of last year that I've been worrying about how to paint the 7-foot-by-9-foot Inanna #1 properly. You remember - I talked about it a lot. I finished the figures in the underdrawing, and it hung there on the wall, alternately baleful and forlorn. I could not summon the will to paint on it; I did not trust myself to do what I needed to do. Dust settled on it.

What I needed to do was make the gesture I had hypothesized and agonized about: the purified, absolutely physical gesture, emptied out of intention, reason, and observation, distilled to itself and nothing more. This I could not do, I did not feel ready to do it properly. But without the gesture, the painting was nothing, it could not become itself.

This is the painting on July 28, 2012. Let's review what it's about - on the left is the Sumerian goddess Inanna. On the right is the me of life, represented here by a pregnant woman (a me is a kind of Sumerian mythological power-object, or divine decree). Inanna observes the me of life in this first painting. In the next painting, she will observe the me of death. Being a young and ambitious goddess, Inanna will then travel into the underworld to gain control of these two powerful mes. This is the subject of the series of which this painting is the first.

The string is a trick I learned from Gaudí - to make a curve, hang a string. The curve was for the curved horizon the painting was eventually to have. I traced the curve with a pencil:

And that was the last thing I did. From July 28 until March 13, the painting underwent no change.

I'd like to say that in early March I had a very elegant realization that I was ready to go ahead. But I didn't, I just needed the wall space for a different enormous painting I want to work on. So it was time to commit. My plan was that the overall painting should be blue in the end, and the figures yellow. But to get this to work, I needed to do a first layer of yellow for the figures and green for the ground. You can see the frightening quality of it, at least for a high-rendering figurative painter. It's just some paint put on with a palette knife...

...and then spread with a cloth and turpentine.

I did this in yellow for the figures, and then in green for the ground:

I first recognized this technique as possibly leading to a viable aesthetic idiom in 2010:

Daniel Maidman, La Mémoire, 2010, oil on canvas, 18"x14"

It has taken me this long to do it again, on purpose, and make it work.

There are a few ways to know that something is working. There's an ordinary way, which is that you look at it, and evaluate things like formal elements, and the image relative to the intention, and so on, and you make a rational decision about whether the painting is working or not.

Another ordinary way is the gut hunch, which is a powerful tool in the hands of an experienced artist. The gut hunch is a kind of shorthand summary of a huge act of aesthetic integration in the preconscious mind. The artist scans the picture, and his gut tell him if it works. This is how Richter evaluates his squeegee paintings.

A third way is to wait for a sign - to demand revelation. That was what I needed, to understand my work on this painting. I was not making it from my intentionality and my reason, and my intentionality and reason were not the relevant tools for comprehending my progress. Neither was my gut particularly well-trained in the aesthetic region I was tackling. I needed a sign.

I got one, too. Here's what happened. I'm working on another series of paintings right now, which we aren't going to talk about yet. But doubling is fundamental to this other series: the doubleness of gender, of sex organs, of eyes, of halves of the sphere, of electromagnetic fields. There is a shape that helps to define this series. It is the shape of the electromagnetic field which surrounds a solenoid:

This field resembles a donut in three-dimensional space. Its cross-section has two lobes and looks like a bivalve:

I knew that I wanted the marks I made on Inanna #1 to be visible, but I did not know how they should be distributed. The issue was going to come to a head with the blue layer - the blue layer is dark and specific and covers most of the canvas. I was satisfied with my gestures on the yellow-and-green layer, but I was going to have to go further and nudge those gestures into an overall composition in the blue layer. What the composition was, I had no idea. I was trusting the painting to tell me.

So here's me taking the leap of faith - the first dabs of blue, straight from the tube, onto the dry yellow-and-green layer:

And here's me with my handy cloth and turpentine, spreading the paint. As you can see, the marks are completely visible.

At first, I was simply making visible marks, pleased enough with that. But I soon realized that the painting did in fact have a composition to tell me about. It wanted to take on that bilobate solenoid shape. Current should flow down the center, between the two figures, and curve leftward on the left side of Inanna and rightward on the right side of the me of life. I worked on this procedure across the immense surface of the canvas:

When I got to the right hand side, I palette-knifed a bunch of blue paint onto the canvas at about my chest level, and got going. But it felt wrong - I felt that I shouldn't be starting this part of the curve separated from the existing part I had done across the middle and top. I should build outward - the current should not break. So I went back up and started working down from the top, not up from the middle:

This is how the painting looked at the point where I had just started working down from the top, abandoning for a minute the paint I had placed on the canvas on the right.

Now an interesting problem came up: I wanted the paint to trace the outline of the figure's back fairly closely. And I was applying the paint with a bunched-up cloth. I am left-handed; if you paint, you will understand that you can best control edges when you approach them from the same side as the hand you paint with. So when I was pushing paint rightward against an edge, as in Inanna's back, I had good control, or as good as you can get when you are painting with a squished rag. But I was going to have a problem pushing paint up near the edge of the me of life's back with my left hand.

So I switched hands.

This was my sign. I'm not ambidextrous at all. I can't do anything (no, not even that) with my right hand. But I became ambidextrous - doubled - while I needed to be, on this painting. I confidently traced a fluid line down the back of the me of life, holding the cloth in my right hand.

That was how I, personally, knew that whatever I did, it fucking worked. In the world of real magic, signs are not the same as miracles. They are mostly rightnesses accomplished where they could not be accomplished before: something in you is transformed, and you are across the chasm without having crossed it.

That's how I finished Inanna #1.

Daniel Maidman, Inanna #1, 2012-13, oil on linen, 84"x108"

When I planned the series, I found that I could not simultaneously believe in rendering and narrative. So I traded one for the other. By great good fortune, I was permitted to make the trade, and in doing it, to make a painting different from what I had been making. I found my own combination of color fields and tight representational line. I am so excited about this. There is still room in the world to grow and change.

Post-Apocalyptic Pastorale: The Paintings of Jazz-minh Moore

I have been thinking about Jazz-minh Moore's paintings for some time now, and in discussing her current solo show, "All Our Grandmothers," at Claire Oliver Gallery, I must also depend on work from her 2012 solo, "Is That All There Is," at Lyons Wier Gallery.

Moore is painting figures in landscapes, in acrylic paint, on birch panels. She often distresses the boundaries of her panels, or otherwise incorporates the physicality of her substrate into the work itself. Consider, for instance, the nearly St. Sebastian-like wounds suggested by the visible knots of wood in the legs of the figure in Catch:

Jazz-minh Moore, Catch 
acrylic on birch panel, 48"x 22"x 2", 2013

Moore's embrace of the presence of the birch carries implications for her palette - she tends to paint in desaturated pastels: she can add brightness with her paint, but there is little she can do to add darkness without dethroning the raw wood.

As a painter, she currently tends toward visible, expressive marks in her foreground figures and plants, set off against soft fields of glowing hue:

Jazz-minh Moore, All Our Grandmothers 
acrylic on birch panel 48" x 78" x 2", diptych, 2013

For my part, I have found these paintings very appealing since I first saw them. They have a kind of rough-palmed outdoorsy charisma very much in keeping with the characters who populate Moore's world.

The paintings support a layered experience. For me, the first layer consists in the formal qualities we have been discussing - the light and color, the physicality of the wood.

The second layer is much like smell: an evocation of sense memories of, for me, summer camp in Michigan - tangled plants, burgeoning with life, or perhaps only seen so for being adolescent and hormone-saturated in the seeing - hazy afternoons, sunlight, humid air - shouts and runs and leaps. Reviewing Moore's biography, we find that she chooses to phrase her own youth as follows:

born on a hippie commune in the old redwood forests of Oregon, and raised in a small house on a dirt road near San Diego, surrounded by fruit trees

Perhaps what I am bringing to it from my memory is a fair personal equivalent to its sources in Moore's life.

But the visual and quasi-olfactory layers of the work serve deeper layers still. I see Moore's paintings as arising from two fascinating American traditions. Consider the apocalyptic quality of The Tower, from the 2012 "Is That All There Is" show:

Jazz-minh Moore, The Tower 
acrylic on birch panel, 48"x 72", 2012

Immediately we see wreckage, tangled wood - a kind of pastiche of post-Katrina disaster cityscapes. There is nothing classicizing about the imagery on display; the girl, half-hidden in this image, is clearer in another - a thoroughly modern girl, Moore's little sister, in fact -

Jazz-minh Moore, Fist (detail) 
acrylic on birch panel, 40"x 30", 2012

- and yet, for all that we are looking at modern wrecked lumber, and the pierces, tattoos, hair, and clothes of contemporary youth - the imagery is phantasmagorical. It is not straight imagery of ruin, but rather partakes of the doctrine of redemptive-ruin. These are not the ruins of the past, or the present, but of the onrushing future. They recall Tyler Durden's reverie in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club:

"Imagine," Tyler said, "stalking elk past department store windows ... you'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. ... you'll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you'll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway..."

- Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, p. 125

Moore and Palahniuk both present a post-apocalyptic world of savage youth and overgrown plants, a pastoral chaos of greenery and purity. This is the end of the world as foretold by environmentalism, itself already a good part of the way toward becoming a religion. But what kind of religion?

Studying Moore's work, I had a realization about that, about what kind of religious impulse I was observing. It explained to me the vivid feeling of Americanness I had, looking at these paintings, which do not, after all, have any especial visual trappings of America. The religious impulse underlying them, however, is deeply American - it is that giddy millennialism which has characterized us since Jonathan Edwards thundered to a trembling Connecticut town, in 1741, that

This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favors to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. ... God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time ... Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down and cast into the fire.

- Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, 1741

The religious and moral zeal of the American people has, from the start, combined with the stomach-falling anticipation of the crumbling high perch, of Edwards' "he that walks in slippery places," of Leonardo DiCaprio's startlingly gleeful "Here we go!" as he watches the Titanic capsize beneath him. Anglosphere America has always been a house divided. It has treated its might as a tower of Babel, awesome but definitionally corrupt, alternately attractive and repellent. Through centuries of millennial revival movements, we Americans have yearned for the kingdom of God, the republic of virtue, and been dreadfully tempted by the preceding day of judgment, the orgy of destruction. We have craved it, from colonial New England down to Moore's Greenwich Village of today, this very minute.

Jazz-minh Moore, The Hanged Man 
acrylic on birch panel, 60"x 42", 2013

Look at the expression of transport, of terror and pleasure on the face of Moore's self-portrait in The Hanged Man. Combine it with the impressive abs on display. What we see is the deep impulse of a powerful person to be overpowered. That is what I am saying is the American core of the work overall - a fear that our strength undoes us, turns us evil; and thus a distrust of our strength, and an urge to give it up, to have the apocalypse come upon us, to force us from our wicked ways so that we can start new, and start better.

Some apocalyptic artists have taken the day of wrath as their subject. Others have taken the day after. Moore takes the day after. Here too she appears to me as the very latest, most up-to-date exemplar of a long-standing American cultural current. I'm talking, of course, about Maxfield Parrish.

Maxfield Parrish, Ecstasy 
oil on panel, 36"x24", 1929

Parrish is of a kind, to my eye, with J.R.R. Tolkien - he hearkens back, or forward, to a golden age, an age of sturdy, widely spaced, deindustrialized buildings, and of a people in harmony with nature. But Tolkien, a child of the old world, pictures his new men as humble and homely: short, fat, male, and hairy. Parrish, proud son of Philadelphia, helps to innovate an American ideal of beauty which has persisted a hundred years: healthy, long-limbed, strong, and feminine. Parrish (with Manship, Thayer, and a few other artists) answers a question implicit in the millennial history of the United States - what will the citizens of the republic of virtue look like?

In an idiom drawing on the Greco-Roman fantasies of 19th century France and England, and ultimately gentler than the fascist visions of 20th century Germany and Italy, Parrish says that the citizens of the future will be slender youths, women mainly, fleet of foot, nearly unbounded by gravity, and their defining moods will be gratitude, excitement, and laughter.

Now look again at Jazz-minh Moore's All Our Grandmothers:

Jazz-minh Moore, All Our Grandmothers 
 acrylic on birch panel 48" x 78" x 2", diptych, 2013

She has updated the end of the world, and the golden age, to the present. You think she is singing a pop song, but if you listen for the melody, you'll find that it's the national anthem. Her work is a treasure. It integrates our fleeting moment into our heritage. The confused impressions of the day lack mass and dignity without the perspective of history, nor can plans be built upon them. Moore's body of work lends mass and dignity to the present, and gives it the gifts of plenty - the consolations of memory, the hopes of a future.


"All Our Grandmothers," Claire Oliver Gallery, Mar 13th, 2013 to Apr 13th, 2013, 513 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001
Jazz-minh Moore is exclusively represented by Claire Oliver Gallery. All inquiries please contact the gallery.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Response to What Picasso Said About His Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Now here's my promised follow-up to the piece about Aleah Chapin's show. I wrote it before the show opened - the gallery gave me access to the paintings before they were hung, and I spent a good long time looking at them and testing the ideas I had already partly formed against the observations I was making in person. There was something I noticed which I really wanted to add to my essay, but which had no good place in it - Chapin had painted a cricket in the right foreground of the painting Interfold, which depicts the only man who is accepted into the company of the aunties:

Aleah Chapin, Interfold, oil on canvas, 72"x120", 2012

You can't see the cricket here, but the cricket is very charming, and also reminded me of Tithonus, the mortal lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn. Eos petitions Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, but forgets to ask that he be given eternal youth as well. As you can imagine, it doesn't end happily for poor Tithonus, who gets so old he eventually turns into a cricket.

Was Chapin citing this myth? Probably not. But it came to mind.

I started this blog - this whole project of writing about art - as a kind of adjunct to my painting itself. It was a parasite, an appendix, a thrall. But I am increasingly recognizing that the writing has a separate and self-contained life. I am not altogether pleased about this, but I'll take success where I can get it. Anyhow, I went to the opening of Chapin's show, and I had an experience very rewarding in my life as a writer.

I had another commitment that evening, so I could only stay for a few minutes at the beginning. Chapin and her mom were there - I had never met Deborah Koff-Chapin. Here they are (on the left) with Dorian Vallejo, another extraordinarily talented artist, and Dorian's friend Kelly, who was very nice:

Deborah told me something which was moving and humbling. First she unfolded the story of the actual aunties a little bit - that they are indeed a gang of lifelong friends who live on an island off the coast of Washington State; my impression of their hermetic sisterhood was not off-base.

The moving and humbling part was that they had read my article and it touched them in a way corresponding to how my study of Chapin's paintings had touched me; they thought I had looked closely, and seen clearly, and written a description in which they recognized themselves. This made me tear up. I cannot tell you how important this is to me. Let me try to explain. Perhaps you know the story about Picasso's 1905-6 portrait of Gertrude Stein, shown here with Stein herself, in a photograph by Man Ray:

There are two versions of the attendant story. Each begins with someone pointing out to Picasso that the portrait of Stein doesn't actually look like Stein. In the first version, Picasso replies, "It will." In the second version, he replies, "In a hundred years, nobody will care what Gertrude looked like, but they will still be looking at my painting."

The second version concerns us here. Picasso is right, except for the part about nobody caring what Stein looked like by 2005. Broadly speaking, he is right. Ars longa, vita brevis, and so forth. He is right, but still I disagree with him.

Nobody has one eye fixed on eternity more than I do. Trust me, or ask people who really know me - I very much give a shit what happens with my work once I am gone. But Picasso in the second version of the story has both eyes on eternity, and no eyes on the present. To me, this is cruel. So ardent is his chasing after the good opinion of posterity that he has nothing left for the people who are actually living and breathing around him. This betrays to me the instincts of an asshole.

But, saith you, wouldn't he have to compromise his vision in order to accommodate Stein's vanity?

I think this is only a surface reading of the question; the core of the issue is not a conflict between the observer's sense of Truth and the subject's Vanity. Think of eye-on-eternity as an eye sweeping out a vertical region of aesthetic space; it corresponds most strongly to the artist's concerns with the great themes, and contributions to the evolution of forms. It is solitary and profound. Then think of eye-on-the-present as an eye sweeping out a horizontal region of aesthetic space. It is social, and often trivial, and changeable with regard to many things. It answers to the artist as a human being among human beings.

These regions overlap. The vertical art is informed by the temporal human life of the artist, and feeds on it. The horizontal humanity of the artist learns to set priorities, and gains moral weight, from the pressure of the eons, thundering onward. Surely the region of overlap between the vertical and the horizontal is smaller than the total region of each. But making art is very much a question of finding excellence in the face of what your formal restraints deny you; and the region of overlap is enormous.

Now, I don't actually think that Picasso's reply is necessary relative to his painting. What he should have said was, "I have discovered a new mode of looking at things; you don't understand it yet - but you will." And maybe that's what he's getting at in the first version of the story. But if he actually said "nobody will care what she looked like," then he exhibited a kind of default indifference to the people around him which rubs me very wrong.

I try to work inside of the huge region of overlap - the region where I can respond to the present without denying the future. So far, I think this is going pretty well for me. I cannot bear, as Picasso seems to be able to bear, to use the people around me as simple tools; not for my vision, and certainly not for my career. Perhaps, as a result, my work is not as good as it could be. But I think it probably is.

So when Chapin's mom told me that she and the aunties recognized themselves in the things I wrote about them, based on my study of Chapin's paintings - that was like vindication. You can spin stories for yourself based glancingly on external stimuli, and have those stories bear no relation to the people who generated the stimuli. But if you have spent many years trying to understand and appreciate other people, and then you spin some stories about some particular people, and those people make their way across a great distance, and you end up in the same room with them, and they say, "Yes, I saw what you wrote and it is just so! Very much so!" - then that is an excellent thing. It means you are not alone in your universe of supposition, that your so-called empathy is not, after all, narcissism dressed up as Saint Francis.

This is why I teared up when Deborah Koff-Chapin said that to me. Many things mean that much to me as a human being who makes and writes about art, but no things mean more. I am very grateful to her and her friends.

Have one more picture from the opening - this is me and Aleah Chapin in front of Interfold:

I don't take being in this kind of picture for granted: to share happily in the company of artists I admire. If you are an artist, I would recommend that you remember and treasure pictures like these. You are lucky to appear in these pictures. You're lucky that these people are glad to know you. These pictures are evidence that you have not, in the end, used your work as an excuse to do injustice to the people living in the same time as you. You got to make art and still keep your humanity. That's a great privilege.


I believe this counts as thinking a lot about something to do with art. The topic of thinking-a-lot-about-art is on my mind because of the very kind description of this blog in such terms included in painter-blogger Jane Gardiner's list of useful art sites. This was part of her highly productive month of blogging every day, an exercise which would surely drive me around the bend, but she did a marvelous job of it.

Daughter of the Wild Women: Aleah Chapin at Flowers Gallery

OK, so, this appeared originally at Huffington, and it has taken me a while to get around to posting it here. But that's just as well, because I've got a bit of follow-up which I'll do in the next post. In the meantime, I worked pretty hard, for me, on this piece (three drafts) and was happy that it was able in the end to communicate one or two ideas.


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":

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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


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.

Now we return to Step:

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.


All non-Chapin paintings via or

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 [OK, obviously, you missed this, but keep an eye out for when she's showing again]