“Elizabeth Chapin: Careful/Uncareful” at Wally Workman Gallery

These portraits jettison the obvious for the sake of drama and harnessing the truth of a human being in a singular moment

<i>Ephraim</i> by Elizabeth Chapin
Ephraim by Elizabeth Chapin

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.

Elizabeth Chapin: “Careful/Uncareful”

Wally Workman Gallery, 1202 W. Sixth, 512/472-7428
Through Dec. 23

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Wally Workman Gallery
"Ashley Benton + Christopher Lee Gilmer" at Wally Workman Gallery
Art is, we’ll insist, transcendent when its foundation is skill and passion

Wayne Alan Brenner, Dec. 27, 2019

“Will Klemm: Box of Light” at Wally Workman Gallery
“Will Klemm: Box of Light” at Wally Workman Gallery
The artist illuminates our world’s defining shadows with an oil-based glow

Wayne Alan Brenner, Oct. 18, 2019

More Arts Reviews
<i>Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents</i> by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
In her second book, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines and breaks down the unacknowledged social structure baked into our country

Rosalind Faires, Nov. 13, 2020

<i>Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir</i> by Natasha Trethewey
Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
In her book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a daughter who returns to her mother's crime scene to reclaim herself

Barbara Purcell, Nov. 6, 2020

More by Sam Anderson-Ramos
“Pio Pulido: The Last Exhibit of the 20th Century” at the MACC
This retrospective is like visiting an artist's crowded studio and yet provides just a glimpse of this visionary's output

Sept. 1, 2017

“Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Giant” at the Blanton Museum of Art
“Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Giant” at the Blanton Museum of Art
The film is good at showing the fate of the film set of Giant, but it leaves open the question of what's happened to Marfa

Aug. 25, 2017


Wally Workman Gallery, Elizabeth Chapin, portraiture, Ephraim Owens

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle