Jean Fisher once said that the impulse to draw is not to capture appearance so much as a demand to animate thought. Thus drawing is always beyond perception. It exists on the other side of perception. As children, it is the way we manifest one of our primary urges to define the world, or reinvent it as we see it in our minds and our direct experience. In his first New York solo show, Scottish artist Paul Chiappe unveils ten pencil drawings, investigating the relationship between adults and children in the catholic faith, and the traditions within organized religion in general. Chiappe is known for his detailed graphite drawings which are miniature in scale, ranging from two to four inches or smaller, but executed with a high degree of technical sophistication.
His practice evokes the devotional and the meditative rituals of a mystic convening with a higher source of knowledge or truth, to attain insight into the mysteries that transcend ordinary human knowledge. Therefore, it is interesting that the subject matter of this particular body of work is about specifically mediated knowledge, in this case knowledge directly intercepted by catholic dogma, and which appears to ignore its own teaching: “Yea: did ye never read, out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” In a sense this work is about innocence, or more precisely, its loss, and opens up a larger proverbial can of worms with regard to alleged vicissitudes of the clergy.
Rather than direct observation, Chiappe gleans images sourced from the Internet or from found vintage photographs that are then collaged together and reworked to form a ‘staged’ version of a fictional photographic scene. With thousands of tiny strokes of his pencil the drawings bear the skillful technique of photorealism. However, it is important to note that these are highly rendered but are not “photo-real”. Chiappe surpasses the genre of photorealism by imbuing his images with atmosphere, content and the interesting choice of scale, which in and of itself imparts specific meaning. They are more to do with marrying mind, heart and hand together, carefully stroking a surface that eventually after much labor, reveals an image evoking a sensorial impression that creeps under your skin. They are dark and sinister verging on a sense of evil. These images are all the more powerful because of their quietness, their stillness: In one, a girl in her white lace Sunday-best dress stares at the camera, thumb in her mouth, behind her looms a headless corpulent body in black ecclesiastical attire. In another, rows of white-socked and white-frocked young girls with hands in prayer-position form what we assume to be the church choir but we see no discernible faces and we hear no sound; blackened silhouettes lurk behind the sultry face of a young teenage boy illuminated to the left of the picture plane; two portraits, curiously blurred, recall the images of missing children we habitually see on milk cartons, which makes us wonder, if anyone really pays attention to them, just as passers-by ignore a screaming car alarm in the midst of the city.
Chiappe deliberately obscures the focus by blurring his images so that pictorial elements and facial features lose sharpness, playing with the notion of the analogue photographic image and its imprecise nature, but also with the sense of how a story gets altered as it is verbally transmitted over time, or loses potency because we are simply bombarded with information, or maybe because the features of the innocent are archetypal and in a way, do not need definition. In one of the works, the graphite rendition of highly underexposed film grain leaves us with almost no image at all, save for the slightest hint of a human presence, perhaps a trace of the numinous after the cycle of life has reached its completion.
The interest in miniature references the size of vintage black and white photographs but also the notion of something handheld and precious. In practice, the miniature directly speaks to interiority, sacrificing the personal expressive mark in an act of transcendence of ego, spurring associations with prayer, meditation and the hours of solitude and devotion involved in the making of illuminated manuscripts in medieval christianity. Chiappe’s drawings many take many weeks or even months to complete. It is a strong counterpoint to modernity as we know it, with its emphasis on speedy execution and technology, favoring instead, the handmade with the simplest of all the artist’s tools.
WORDS: KAREN GARRATT PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JOSEE BIENVENU GALLERY
Paul Chiappe Josee Bienvenu Gallery, New York until July 18 2014