Aleah Chapin is renowned for her unflinching nude portraits of older women, relatives, and friends. Described by painter Eric Fischl as “the best and most disturbing painter of flesh alive today,” Chapin’s bold and intimate portrayals of the human figure have broadened the debate around the visibility of aging in representations of the body.
Over the past year, Chapin has taken an increasingly intuitive approach to painting, resulting in a radical shift in style and process.
In anticipation of her upcoming solo exhibition at the Flowers Gallery in Hong Kong, we sat down with the artist to talk about her creative evolution.
Your latest body of work is quite different compared with your work in the past. What are some of the key characteristics differentiating these recent paintings from your prior ones?
The short answer is that I used to paint what I could see in the world outside, and now my work is coming from the inside. I know that is pretty vague, so the longer answer is that I have been a realist figurative painter my whole life and my subject has mainly been other people. I would do photoshoots and then use these photos as references for paintings. This new work starts out in an entirely different way. I meditate in my studio and then do multiple quick, automatic drawings with paint on paper, often with my non-dominant hand. My subject is my imagination and what I feel in my body. Then I take these drawings and photograph my own body (which I never used to do) in the postures discovered through the drawings. Using these images, plus photographs of my garden or other wild places, I construct compositions that merge realism and abstract expression into a cohesive image. In the end, they are still entirely oil paintings, but instead of pure realism, this new work uses whatever visual language feels like it can say what I need it to say.
Aleah Chapin, The Unearthing, 2020. Oil on canvas, 48 x 40”.
What has been the turning point for you that stirred you in this new direction of painting?
There have been many small turning points I think. I've spent my life training my eyes and hands to work together to express what I see in the external world in a highly realistic and controlled way. It used to be so much fun, but it started to be less fun, less magical, more of a feeling of painting myself into a corner. I still love realism, but there is just so much more inside of me that can't be expressed in that language anymore.
How has the pandemic affected your creative process?
In all honesty, I'm not sure if my work would have changed if not for the pandemic. I was feeling the pull before Covid hit, but the space and time that lockdown gave me, plus the feeling that the world was turning inside out, just allowed it all to happen. These new paintings are all self portraits in a way, and I think the isolation of the pandemic gave me a clearer view of myself (which was not always a comfortable thing). The world just got quiet enough for me to hear and see what was inside.
What are some of the emotions or stories you wish to convey through your work?
I don't have specific emotions or stories in mind, that's really up to the viewer and what they bring to the work. But I think I just want people to come away feeling a little less alone in this "being human" thing. It's f*cking hard, and beautiful, and everything in between and that's all okay.
Aleah Chapin, The Melting, 2020. Oil on canvas, 48 x 40”.
Who are some of your favorite fellow artists?
Oh so many! Here are just a few: Jenny Saville, Maja Ruznic, Inka Essenhigh, Jenny Morgan, Emily Adams, Jo Hay, Lily Koto Olive, Dorielle Caimi, Loie Hollowell, Ken Currie, Ishbel Myerscough and Nicola Hicks. Unintentionally mostly women!
Could you tell us what a day in the life of Aleah Chapin looks like?
Well, first there's coffee and meditation and taking my dog Juniper out. Then on an ideal day, I spend the rest of my time in the studio listening to good music or an audiobook and painting. I might have an afternoon walk or do some gardening. Then my evening is spent having dinner with my husband and reading or watching a good movie or show. On less ideal days, I have to be on my computer doing the "business" side of things, but all in all, I'm still grateful this is my full time job!
What are some things that you are looking forward to next year?
Good question. Since Covid, I don't plan so far ahead anymore, but I'm looking forward to a year of painting. Since changing my work, I just feel like there's so much that needs to come out and I'm excited (and a bit nervous) about what that will look like. I'm also looking forward to watching my garden grow. It's fall now, and the plants are sinking into winter, but I know that Spring will come and seeing those first green shoots in January, followed by a slow, long spring and an explosion of color in May, just fills my whole body with light.
Aleah Chapin’s solo exhibition titled Walking Backwards will be on view at the Flowers Gallery Hong Kong from November 20, 2021 - January 15, 2022.
Aleah Chapin, The Opening, 2020. Oil on canvas, 48 x 40”.