1 November 2010
“The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of the guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window…”
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The paintings are stacked a meter deep along the window wall in a cramped, shared studio. One drywall is accessible and on it is a new canvas, wet with oils. On the painted surface a landscape emerges, at once so familiar and yet it could be anywhere in the world. Shadows from buildings outside the picture plane foam like waves on a shore. It is a place I know well: an inner city derelict or a movie scene.
We seem to dream in film these days. Our minds walk impossible corridors behind the facades of our childhood memories. There is the gathering dislocation - as we revisit these spaces - between the deceptions of that front wall and its relationship to the activities inside; of all that a shop front, an illuminated sign, a welcome mat intends to convey and the echo of that intention within its interior spaces. For Chapman, that moment of disruption is revealed in the peeling paint, the cracked plaster, broken light bulbs and abandoned playgrounds of the places he catalogues in his sketchbooks.
Chapman has particular memories of houses. He recounts the experience of a childhood friend’s home. It was built from the parts of an old theatre, the house an eccentric structure in central suburbia. Despite the fact that the occupants had no relationship to the original theatre, the façade generated a peculiar set of assumed identities on the part of the occupants that were indulged in on occasion. Svetlana Boym speaks of nostalgia as a sentiment of loss and displacement, but also as a romance with one’s own fantasy. The malady of nostalgia, considered a curable disease in the seventeenth century, has been recognized as a characteristic of contemporary life in a globalised world. Whether one can confidently diagnose the artist with this condition is difficult to say for sure. His images do undergo a curious kind of dissolution in the articulation of a concrete beam as a light wash of pigment, a ray of light as a complex web of impasto strokes or the lip of a pavement as a line that evaporates into a wood veneer tar road. The façade is embodied as a permeable veil, in some instances, perhaps a melancholic frontage.
The implicit representational ambiguity in Chapman’s work engenders a curious act of looking. There is the dislocation of memory from the specificity of place and yet a relocation at the same time – somewhere in the space of dreaming. Chapman’s images situate the viewer firmly within the labyrinth of city streets with no names, evoking a tension with the potential to fantasize ‘reading’ the city from a vantage point on high. De Certeau remarks in Walking in the City (1984) that as city practitioners we live below the thresholds of a celestial visibility. We are the walkers, the writers, of the city. It is our movements, our memories and our fantasies that shape the lived experience of space. A single space can hold the potential for so many variants of fantasy. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) Marco Polo regales an aging Kublai Khan with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels. It soon becomes clear that each of these fantastic places is really the same place. ‘Desires are already memories,’ Marco Polo remarks of Isidora, the dreamed-of city that contained him as a young man. He says of the city of Zaira that ‘as this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands.’
Chapman’s city is such a sponge, a limitless resource of re-imaginings in paint. It is the city where the artifice of memory simultaneously crumbles and is re-imagined.