'What painting portraits of naked women has taught me
By Claire Cohen
'Artist Aleah Chapin, 28, has caused controversy with her realistic paintings of nude older women. Now, she has a new London show that celebrates the female form at every age. Here, she opens up to Claire Cohen about body image and the perils of social media.
Aleah Chapin has seen a lot of naked women. In the past couple of years, she’s studied wrinkles, tattoos, mastectomy scars, pubic hair, lactating breasts and sagging bosoms.
The 28-year-old American artist, who hails from an island off Seattle and now lives in Brooklyn, has been lauded for her realist, larger-than-life depictions of ‘real’ female bodies.
It started with the ‘Aunties Project’, which saw her paint a series of giant nudes, featuring a group of older women – her mother’s friends, who she “grew-up with” and has known all her life.
One won her the prestigious BP Portrait Award in 2012, the last time she was in London. It depicted a woman in her sixties, smiling with her fulsome breasts resting on her stomach.
Critic Brian Sewell called it “repellent…a grotesque medical record”.
Chapin was undeterred. She’s exhibited in the US, the Netherlands and Germany. Now, she’s back in London with a new show at the Flowers Gallery: ‘Maiden, Mother, Child and Crone’.
The paintings are in the same spirit – playful, confident, naked women – but her subjects now span the generations.
“I’m at the age where many of my friends are having children, thinking about having children, or thinking about not having children. So it’s something that’s happening now,” explains Chapin.
“And I’m nearing the age my parents were when they had me, so there’s this interesting layering of generations. I wanted to explore that in my work”.
Her paintings challenge the ageing process: how the years affect our bodies and minds, and how we’re ‘supposed’ to behave at a certain age.
So there’s a giant canvas on which a group of nine grey-haired women play an exaggerated, child-like game, crawling through each other’s legs. There are two pictures depicting a young mother. Another captures a mother and her daughter, standing companionably, side-by-side.
Chapin began painting as a child. But she only adopted the female form as a student in New York.
“I moved from the west coast to the east coast - New York with its big contemporary art world,” she explains. “I wanted to fit in. But then, I was drawn to where I came from.
“So I decided to go back to basics and explore my history and the people I grew up with - all these wacky and amazing women. The female body is an incredible thing to paint.”
(I don’t know about you, but, I’d struggle to delve into my back catalogue of family friends and emerge with a dozen women I could ask to take their clothes off).
But, as well as being a personal project, Chapin’s work has also shone a light on the subject of body image.
“Most women have issues and I’m not immune to that,” says Chapin. “We’re told that our bodies are supposed to be a ‘certain height, certain size, certain weight’. But the pictures we see are completely unrealistic; they’re very Photoshopped.
“We all know it when we look at them in magazines and yet, we still compare ourselves.
“That’s why we need images that show all sorts of bodies – so we can accept every size and shape.”
This attitude is why her work resonates. We may not recognise the individuals depicted in paint, but we recognise them as people (and it’s likely why two of Britain’s leading collectors of modern art –including ‘Saatchi of the North’ Frank Cohen - have snapped up work from the new exhibition).
She also says that painting young women was a different experience to the ‘Aunties’.
“We generally care more what we look like – probably too much at times, me included,” she says.
“Young women are still trying to fit in. I think when you get older you care less –that’s not a negative thing at all. You’re just more accepting.
“When you get past a certain age you become invisible – and that’s a whole other problem.
“For me, it’s about finding beauty in every imperfection.”
Some might disagree. I talk to a middle-aged woman, intently studying Chapin’s work on the gallery walls. She’s disappointed by the subject matter.
“It’s sad that we have to go to such extremes to get attention for my generation,” she tells me. “For me, it’s just too much. I find it really hard to look at.”
Chapin’s paintings do dominate a room. Each is twice life-size and, according to Chapin, her works are getting “larger and larger”.
“You get an amazing human connection that way,” she tells me. “They are more in your personal space.”
To the outsider, it looks as though it’s Chapin who’s really been invading personal space. But she assures me that she’s never had to ‘persuade’ any of her subjects to strip-off.
“I don’t want them to go into it not wanting to,” she explains.
“I ask them to close their eyes and take a deep breath. That can really ground them in their bodies and make them feel relaxed. I also let them know that I’m completely comfortable.
“I almost don’t even see nakedness anymore; I’m so used to it.”
She does admit that a few women went through “difficulty” when they first saw themselves depicted in paint. But nothing could have prepared them for the public reaction.
“None of us expecting that,” smiles Chapin. “That’s the hardest bit for us all – having personal pictures out there.”
It’s an issue that every modern artist must now tackle – the presence of his, or hers, subjects on the internet.
“I have to let them know that the images will be online, she says. “You see these little tiny thumbnails and they look more real when they’re smaller. It changes things for people. I’m honestly surprised that they are so comfortable with it.”
Social media has completely transformed life for young artists like Chapin – allowing them to share ideas and engage with their fans - and detractors.
“Not every one wants to see non-idealised female bodies,” she shrugs. “I try not to be affected but it’s difficult sometimes.
“But then I’ll get an email saying how the work has influenced someone positively and it makes the struggle totally worth it.
"And I no longer feel that I’m not the only one who has body issues. I’ve learned that we all have insecurities, from people around the world who email to tell me what they’re dealing with. I don’t feel alone."
Next, Chapin plans to tackle gender and admits to having male subjects lined up.
“I have asked a couple actually,” she laughs. “But men are actually less comfortable posing in the nude. I guess we see less nude men generally in culture generally, unless you look back to Greek art.
“I have a show in LA next year and I haven’t started the work yet. It’s daunting – but I have to do it.”
She also hopes – at some point – to have a family (her boyfriend, a film-maker, is in London to support her) despite what the art establishment might think.
“I think there’s an expectation that for women to ‘make it’ you only have to do your art,” she says.
““You have to be incredibly selfish and spend a lot of time in the studio. People say you have to be ‘married to your art’.
“But I also believe you can have a partner and a family. I am absolutely going to do that.”
“So I will.”