This post originally appeared on VICE UK
Heavy breasts, crepe-like skin, and thinning pubes; there is a silence laid across women's bodies that screams along the corridors and white walls of most galleries. Painters, photographers, and sculptors simply will not admit what lies beneath our clothes: the scars and wrinkles, the moles and rolls, the coarse black hairs and blue-veined skin. Which is, of course, one of the reasons that Aleah Chapin's 2012 BP Award-winning work, Auntie, a super-realistic painting of a nude older lady, was felt by good old Brian Sewell to be "repellent… a grotesque medical record." It's also why his exhibition at London's Flowers Gallery has garnered so much attention.
It's hard to stand beneath the towering figures of nine naked aged and aging women crawling through each others' legs without, at least in some small way, being shocked. But according to the UN the number of older people is expected to more than double, from 841 million in 2013 to more than 2 billion in 2050. And that age group is predominantly female--100 women to every 85 men. So, what we're looking at on the walls of Cork Street isn't really shocking. It's the future.
We spoke to the artist from New York to find out why she wanted to paint this photorealistic vision of female-ness and whether she ever thinks to herself: Does this look like a nipple?
VICE: There's a bit of an invisible-woman syndrome in Britain and America; we simply don't see middle aged or older women. We ignore them in the street and sweep them out of popular culture. Is that a silence you wanted to speak into with these paintings?
Aleah Chapin: If you look in any museum, how many images of middle aged or older women do you see? Let alone naked. You can understand a lot about how a culture sees its people through the art it makes. It was pretty amazing how many women talked to me about that invisible syndrome.
A woman's history is marked on her body. Do you feel like you have to know the journey a woman has been on before you can paint her?
So far I've only painted people that I know. But so much does show through a body that I wouldn't necessarily need to know the facts of their biography to know their history. Or at least get a sense of who they are. How you stand, the lines on your face, your scars, marks, sun spots, wrinkles; I might not know exactly where all those things come from, but they give me a sense of the kind of life you've lived.
Women are not supposed to show that they've lived. They're meant to be flawless and smooth, which is quite unrealistic. It's bullshit. We've come pretty far in terms of our rights and what we can do: We can join the army, be lawyers, have children and work… and yet that expectation of what we should look like hasn't moved on. Men are allowed to have scars and gray hair because it's considered sexy. It shows power, that he's a warrior.
Whereas a Caesarean scar, a war wound in itself, doesn't have that cultural association?
Did you grow up in an environment where you saw older naked women?
I grew up in a very tight-knit community, with lots of people who were hippies back in the day. They're very connected to the earth and comfortable with their bodies. I definitely did not grow up in a nudist colony--people weren't naked all the time--they were just more comfortable with themselves.
Zephyr is probably your most confrontational piece, not because she's aggressive, but because she's sexy.
It's probably my only super sexy painting, and it came completely from the woman. It's not me imposing an idea. I didn't say, "Look sexy--we were just playing and that came out. It felt kind of ambiguous; it's like she's blowing a kiss but she's also confrontational because she's looking you in the eye.
You paint from photos. Do you photograph the women in your studio?
No, generally outside. That's what I prefer. Although I can't do that in New York City.
What, really? Up in Sugar Hill? Just getting naked in the park?
Oh, I wish. No. On this island where I grew up there are lots of woods and places that are quite private. Outdoor light is beautiful, and there's also something about the way that people act when they're naked in nature. There's a bit of vulnerability, but also this strength because you're completely in the landscape and no one's really looking at you. Except for me.
How do you actually make one of your paintings?
I take hundreds of photos, then make selections about what I want to portray. After I've shown the woman which one I want to use, I go right in and start painting. I don't do small studies because I'm really impatient. I don't like to project [onto the canvas] or do anything like that because I still enjoy the struggle with hand-eye coordination. With the really big ones I'll grid it, maybe one foot by one foot. Then I just start painting layer after layer until it comes to life. I know it's done when it feels like it's breathing.
When you're working on a big painting, in these tiny brushstrokes, how often do you step back and think, "That's a nipple," or "That's a shoulder"?
As often as possible. I try to stand back and make sure it's all coming together because when I'm painting it's kind of like an abstract form. I'm not always thinking: Does that look like a nipple? Sometimes it feels like I'm sculpting.
With your two paintings of Gwen--the one on her own and one with Jumanji--the use of color is very different. What made you do that?
I wish I could say it was a super conscious decision, but I don't always know what's going to happen. The one where it's just Gwen, I knew that I wanted this feeling of complexity, of layers. When I was working on it I actually went through a couple of different ideas of what to surround her with. I was seeing this conversation between her body and the bramble behind her; between those two patterns.
That bright yellow in Jumanji and Gwen is quite out of character for me. But the two colors in the background, I felt like I was craving them. It was deep winter in New York, but where I come from in Washington it was beginning to be spring. There's something about that bright yellow; it's like daffodils, or maybe a cornfield, or a mustard field. And I was craving it with that deep, dense, dark gray sky.
With Gwen, you capture the asymmetry and movement of women's bodies so well. As a painter is that more interesting to you than the static ideal?
Yes, especially in a painting like that where it's a single figure and a very simple pose. It's all about that asymmetry, because that's what a body is. That's where I find the beauty in people. That's one of the reasons I paint so realistically, to capture that quality.
That quality is particularly evident in something like It Was the Sound of Their Feet. Did you take that initial photo outside? What was the atmosphere like?
Incredibly playful. They were just playing this game of going through each others' legs and becoming the tunnel. It was just silly. And then suddenly I realized it was this incredible metaphor for life. Sometimes you're going through the tunnel and then you become part of the tunnel itself. Each part is vital.
You're 28. Do you feel that this period between 27 and 30 is very transformative? Like it's when you understand what it is to be in a woman in a different way?
I think so. All my friends are getting married and having children, or choosing not to have children, so it feels like a shift; we're working out where we want our lives to go. But we're also at the age our parents were when when we were created, when they began our lives.
There's a theory that women's bodies absorb more light than men's because we need to produce more calcium for pregnancy and things. Painters have always talked about women's softness, their luminous quality, and used that to explain why there are so many more female nudes than male nudes in art. How do you feel that your work interacts with that argument?
I know that I started to paint women's bodies because I can relate to them. But also, so much of art history has been about idealized women's bodies. I wanted to fill a gap. There's a lot of contemporary artists that present non-idealized bodies--I know I'm not the only person--but generally we don't see this sort of attention being paid to "flaws," presenting them as something gorgeous.
Painting helps me see the beauty in everything. I get to this wonderful place where I'm completely nonjudgemental. All the cultural norms about what's beautiful and what isn't simply go away. I see the beauty in everything, all those so-called imperfections. I love reality.
Aleah Chapin's paintings are at the Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London until November 8, 2014.
Follow Neil Frizzell on Twitter