These portraits jettison the obvious for the sake of drama and harnessing the truth of a human being in a singular moment
From Van Gogh’s 1890 Portrait of Dr. Gachet to Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1536 portrait of Henry VIII, there are few things in painting that are more riveting and awe-inspiring than the capturing of a person’s essence (regardless of notoriety or lack thereof) on a flat surface. The portraits offered by Elizabeth Chapin in “Careful/Uncareful” are offered in this spirit. The show is a vibrant collection of large-scale portraits willing to jettison the obvious for the sake of drama and, even more important, for the sake of harnessing the truth of a human being in a singular moment.
In Ephraim, a local musician relaxes in a chair. He is holding his trumpet, which rests bell down on a thigh. His head is tilted at a casual, slightly amused angle, against the fingers of his left hand. His shirt is unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. He wears white pants, one leg folded over the other. He is thin but solid – confident. He sets the painting off with his self-assuredness, his willingness to be seen. He’s handsome. I don’t know if a bad portrait could be made of him, though it would probably be quite easy for an artist to undermine his charisma, perhaps by focusing more on what the subject looks like than what the subject is like. Chapin avoids that pitfall here, as she does with all of her portraits, largely with her adventurous approach to color and light. Most striking in Ephraim (aside from Ephraim himself) is the backdrop, a bright pink, patterned curtain that matches the bright pink of Ephraim’s chair. The pink is referenced again in parts of an ornate rug and in the colorful stripes in Ephraim’s socks. The pink, once it is noticed, is like a neon sign. It is on the verge of being too much, but Chapin manages to balance it with the predominant white in the rug, as well as the white in Ephraim’s pants and shoes. On top of this, Ephraim’s ease with himself is so palpably reflected in the lazy directness of his gaze, and nearly imperceptible upturn of his lips, that the onus is really on the blazing pink to keep up. A subtle blue tint, suggesting light shining onto Ephraim’s face from our left, also manages to cool the intensity of the pinks and reds, and is repeated in various places throughout the painting, contributing a depth and texture that makes the color seem to wriggle over the canvas like it is alive.
Historically, portraits have functioned as records, but we have photography for that now. If you want to remember what a person looks like, snap a picture with your phone. If, however, you want to know who a person was, you need an artist, preferably someone like Chapin. Whether the subject is a musician lounging in a chair, a bashful construction worker, a reclining family member, or a naked friend in a bathtub, she applies texture and light to mimic and invent, combining fact with fiction to communicate the truth of that subject’s center and to reconstruct and enliven it. It’s a crucial talent. Our media, entertainment, politics, and even our day-to-day interactions can promote dangerously oversimplified visions of reality. It is the artist’s burden – and privilege – to give dimension to our perceptions. By honoring the complexity of an individual, Chapin’s work deepens our humanity. It forces us to not only look, but to see as well.