With his own unique language, Michael Chapman interprets the world around him. His themes are thoroughly modern, addressing the perception of reality and it’s mutability. The parallels between his work and that of Edward Hopper are striking: geometric motifs, suggested narratives, and interiors with views through a window. But Chapman describes the relationship as indirect, one that is responsive rather than imitative.
Over the past nine years, the artist’s themes and subjects – beach scenes, interiors, city streets, trees and parks, and nocturnes- have become increasingly more complex in their content and composition. Consistently featuring such objects as fire hydrants, chairs, tables, cars, and trains. Chapman continually reconceives their arrangements, explaining that he has a “vocabulary of subject matter” that interests him. “I resolve the same ideas in different ways,” he says. “My mind keeps working on them without being conscious of it. It’s almost as if it’s a matter of time before I will come up with a final solution.”
In The Firewatcher (1999), Chapman further extends the idea of a view through a window by incorporating Hopper’s work, Chapman presents it as part of the scene set before the viewer, whose orientation is from the outside, as if looking through a window at night. This personal vantage point heightens the uneasy sense of scale, as the figures, fire trucks, and buildings in the foreground are in miniature, suggesting they belong to the viewer’s imagination. At the same time, the painting and coffee table are consistent with the room’s décor and therefore part of what is “real”. In addition to this conflict between real and imaginary elements, the Hopper painting combined with the viewpoint play on the cliché’ of entering another world by looking at a painting – or through a window. This kind of duality and ambiguity is integral to Chapman’s body of work. Particularly effective in this case, it creates “an intentional presentation to evoke a certain emotion,” he says.
Earlier works such as Daily Sensibilities (1995), and Harmonious Circus (1991), are simpler compositions, but they are nevertheless powerful reflections on Chapman’s concern for balance and hinted narratives. The artist juxtaposes large windows with tables and chairs, situated in relationships that raise questions about what is inside the picture plane and what extends beyond it. Besides balancing the view inside the view outside, such deliberate but unlikely arrangements suggest that an event has just occurred, but the artist offers no clues. Despite the quality in his work, Chapman insists he never assigns specific narratives. Instead, he hopes viewers place themselves in his picture and that they derive meaning from their own response to what they observe. This desire is perfectly illustrated in the later work The Firewatcher, which is so bound to this idea that the title itself directly addresses the viewer.
He develops this sense of isolation in Night Passenger #1 (1999), in which he again incorporates a Hopper painting, Hotel Window (1956), into his own painting, revealing a woman dressed for travel gazing expectantly out of a window. In the foreground of the Chapman painting, a train, cars, and figures in miniature converge.
As in his other nocturne interiors, the scene contrasts the real and the imaginary, with the viewer taking part, voyeuristically, in the conflict. Like the viewer, the woman is isolated, sitting alone and waiting in an anonymous room. The foreground figures, too, appear separated from one another, strangers embarking on a journey. They link the viewer with the Hopper painting, thus demonstrating the universality of the woman’s isolation.
Chapman attributes his pursuit of specific themes and his use of subject matter by saying simply that he is attracted to their forms. In his early work cars and trains appear rounded and idealized; his 1960s-style table and chairs also feature the simple lines and rounded forms the artist appreciates. Later, as he studied the work of other artists and became more proficient, he rendered them more realistically and associated them with the separate spheres in which men and women move through life, and to the transitory nature of that experience. As his technical skills improved, he began to develop his ideas and forms more comprehensive. “They became better and more complete,” he observes.
Its unlikely Chapman will ever resolve his themes to his satisfaction or ours. They are too immediate, too reflective of a tangled and complex reality – too true to life, in other words – to exhaust. In the meantime, Chapman will provoke us to consider how our perceptions evolve, and how much of our reality is real.
E. Lynne Moss
Senior Editor, American Artist