STEVEN CHAPP’S INTIMATE OBSERVATIONS By Wim Roefs
“I did not think my art was so cerebral,” Steven Chapp says during our interview about his work. Perhaps it isn’t. But Chapp creates narrative imagery in reaction to things that engage him, hoping that viewers will take a thoughtful look and get something from it. That viewers see what they want to see in his images, at times unrelated to his intent, doesn’t bother him. “I don’t think the artist has failed when that happens. I kind of like keeping some parts ambiguous, and the ambiguity is completed by how the viewer interprets the work.”
Chapp typically, though not exclusively, creates prints, be they monotypes, linoleum – and woodcuts or intaglios, including etchings, drypoints or photopolymer prints. “I would like the viewer to be interested not just in the subject matter but also in how the image is executed,” he says. “Prints have a certain intimacy that requires closer inspection of the work, whether it’s a drypoint or monotype or another print technique. Large scale paintings can be viewed at a greater distance, and sculptures have multiple sides.”
The crow takes a central place in much of Chapp’s work, as observer and sometimes actor. “To me the crow is an observer, a watcher of events, the ever-present watchful eye. As an artist, I am foremost an observer of things around me, whether they be the landscape, people or animals. In many of my images, I use the crow as metaphor for humankind. Although my crows at times are actors in my narratives, I feel that they speak for the inaction in most cases of mankind.”
Chapp’s crows foremost assist in telling his stories of mystery and turmoil, at times with a bit of humor. “Don’t get me wrong, life is wonderful, I have no complaints, but I am constantly aware due to media overload of global turmoil. I watch the news and respond. Many people are just observers and take no action, and I suppose my art is a reaction to worldly turmoil in a more antiquated way, through art. I always think there is more I could do. I support some things with monetary contributions, vote in elections, and speak out. Perhaps that responding through art has less impact, but it does satisfy me emotionally.”
“I was moved by the Boston bombing a few years ago, and the footage of the runners was the impetus for my runner images. I also like puns, and an intaglio print called Running Homeless is a play on running home to a safe place, except that the homeless have nowhere to call home.”
Chapp likes using dark values and contrasting colors in telling his stories. “Complements are a favorite, such as yellows and violets or blues. I think complements create a visual tension in my work. But many images just ask for black and white. In these works, I strive to create a range of values and gradations in the linoleum or wood. The high contrasts are then the black and white of the ink and paper.”
As a child, Chapp was more interested in the stories told through illustrations in books than the words on the page. “I could use my imagination to create my own stories. Now I am a reader. Perhaps not a prolific one, but I read in the evenings before bed. Often it’s non-fiction. I like historical works about events or individuals, artists or other people who had an impact on the world or society.”
Morning, Fires Still Burning I, 2007
10 x 11 in
by Wim Roefs
Steven Chapp paints but he is mostly known as a printmaker of monotypes and intaglio relief prints. He is known particularly for his images of crows, which he sees as observers and at times as stand-ins for humans. Many of Chapp’s crows linger around houses and other buildings, which by themselves, placed in a landscape, are also central in Chapp’s work.
The architectural component of Chapp’s work goes back to his MFA days in the early 1980s at South Carolina’s Clemson University, where the art department was part of the College of Architecture. “I had sworn that architecture was not going to have a profound influence,” Chapp says, even though in high school he had wanted to become an architect.
“I was wrong. Clemson provided an opportunity to study in Italy, where my initial interest in architecture overpowered me again. When you put your hand on a block of stone that was placed there over five hundred years ago, it forces you to reappraise your own moment in this world.”
The experience fed Chapp’s interest in the remnants of human existence. “To me, architectural structures and the spaces they occupy and create are important in their relationship to human frailty. While generations of people pass through and around them, these spaces remain stable.”
In response, Chapp conceived his Guardian series, including Interior Guardians and Several Entrances. His invented, spiritual guardian figures were traditional wooden objects used in Italy to shelve freshly baked bread. Chapp liked the objects’ somewhat animated and personified form with legs and a body. “The guardians are in a sense the spirits of the past protecting the space. They have a threatening appearance, standing tall and emerging from the darker values of these spaces.”
Other work, including Confined Monument #3 and Monument Contained, featured an old, Italian sidewalk urinal that reminded Chapp of a sarcophagus – an above ground stone coffin. In his imagery, the urinals are confined by their architectural surroundings and wrap-around fabric. The prints relate to Chapp’s work with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whom he assisted in Kansas City covering walkways and in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, surrounding several islands with fabric.
Man-made forms have played a supportive role in Chapp’s imagery since then, often with crows observing the scene. Triangular structures represent strength, bridges symbolize the crossing of troubled paths, and boats deliver humans to another shore in life.
Buildings and walls in Chapp’s current work also symbolize human separation and humanity’s destructive tendencies. “Will our walls and buildings,” Chapp asks, “survive five hundred years for future generations to touch and wonder about?” Chapp’s recent Structural Balance series deals with the human imprint on earth. “I like the unbalanced figure juxtaposed with the structure. It allows for many interpretations.
Morning, Fires Still Burning II, 2007
10 x 11 in