Monday, 3 November 2014




Jumanji and Gwen, 2014, oil on linen, © Aleah Chapin, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in 2012
'...the search for portraits that can astonish with their virtuosity is balanced with the desire to find those that demonstrate real human dignity and integrity'.
That was the year when Aleah Chapin, an American artist known for her realist, larger-than-life depictions of female bodies, won First Prize in the prestigious annual BP Portrait Award.  I wrote about her painting Auntie in Blog 172 when it was on show at the annual exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Auntie was part of the ‘Aunties Project’, a series of giant nudes, featuring a group of older women, her mother’s friends, whom she grew up with and had known all her life. 

Women's naked bodies only seem to be worth painting if they are young and idealised. Sometimes a narrative is attached, perhaps most famously the apocryphal Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders, who, for repelling  a lustful attack is punished by her would-be seducers, accusing her  of immorality.(They don't get away with it, I'm glad to say). But usually it is a wisp of a story - a draped cloth, a mirror or a discarded item of clothing - and the rest is left to our imagination.

In Jumanji and Gwen there is no back story. One is older than the other, one has a tattoo on her belly. Their touch is friendly, affectionate. Instinctively we scrutinise the face for more information, for the spirit or character to shine through. They look back at us without fear or embarrassment.  We appreciate their strength and warmth.

Lucy and Laszlo 2, 2014
© Aleah Chapin, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York

Chapin's work is beautifully painted, but perhaps a the unique quality is this: at a time when many artists choose to be deliberately dissident and ironic, and sometimes rather mean-spirited, she will have none of that. Although her work can be disturbing - even challenging - and may unsettle the viewer, Chapin always affirms and delights in her subjects. It is ultimately, and perhaps uncomfortably. counter-cultural because it is truly celebratory.

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