Elizabeth Chapin: "Deconstructing Nostalgia" at Wally Workman Gallery

This "type of padded cell of Southern culture" is, pardon us, insanely beautiful

Blue Lace Marco by Elizabeth Chapin

Elizabeth Chapin, a Mississippi native long since transplanted to our increasingly less humble city, floods the world with colors and – using brushes, palette knives, and the usual tools of the nondigital trade – makes those colors resemble her figurative subjects and their immediate surroundings.

I'm mentioning the colors first because those colors are what strike the eyes even before the image built from them has a chance to register. And because, years ago, I learned of that brief school of painting called Fauvism and am compelled, as a proud autodidact, to flaunt my knowledge whenever possible. And it is in that school, that style of color-forward and let's-not-hide-the-brush-strokes painting, that Chapin so wonderfully renders her perceptions of reality.

You know when you're in your 20s, say, and you drop acid for the first time and the resultant sensory warping makes everything seem brighter and deeper and kind of vibrating in its intensity? You know when you're adjusting the values of some image in a photo-editing app and you push the color saturation slider to that rich point just before everything looks downright garish? Like that, with the colors.

It's not the sort of thing that would work for accurate portraiture if it were done on a small scale: The colors and textures would overwhelm the depiction to the point of abstraction; which would be fine in itself, but it seems to me that Chapin is intent on capturing the essence – the depictable essence – of her human subjects without courting caricature. Which is why the large scale she works in has always been the best solution: Paintings that are measured in feet – sometimes 5 or 6 feet to a side – allow for such vivid acrylic-and-gouache expressions of faces and bodies, life-sized or larger-than-life-sized, reproduced for the recognition of life's eyes. And that magnitude continues to serve Chapin well as she explores the meaning of Southernness and her own identity as a woman from the South, because such dimensions also accommodate imposing material additions beyond an image's flat plane.

"I am using neon (unraveling and lit) and Plexiglas (crystallized and glowing) as 'lace,'" says the artist, "neither bonnet nor halo, but playing with both. I made large ruffled 'pillow' paintings and stuffed figures – fringed or in altar-like configurations with mirrored Plexiglas and glitter clouds, re-interpreting the 'trophy' room, woman as trophy, a type of padded cell of Southern culture, and the church altar."

As if the canvases, previously bearing only expertly applied paint, were not enough. As if greater embellishment and contextual extension were required for more accurate representation. But, of course, they are required for what the artist says she's trying to represent. And that she's trying to achieve such representation, and that she succeeds so impressively, and that the results are also simply visually fascinating, is why Chapin's work – and this generous exhibition of it at the Workman Gallery – is worth experiencing.

“Elizabeth Chapin: Deconstructing Nostalgia”

Wally Workman Gallery, 1202 W. Sixth, 512/472-7428
Through March 31

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