At 8 a.m. on September 11, 2001, it was easy to perceive our lives as serene;
we were safe.
Even while Bernie Madoff’s crimes were being exposed,
most saw our economy, our country, as prosperous;
we led the world.
And while the scientific community embraces a vision of quantum mechanics and string theory, shattering our basic understanding of the observable universe, we are left behind only capable of viewing Newton’s world;
we are blind.
We are a visually biased society, living in a time in which
we can no longer believe in what we see.
Photos and Text by Liesa Cole
That is an excerpt from Gary Chapman’s artist statement. We have all been grappling in various ways with the events of the past decade. Chapman’s struggle to make sense of it all has led him to what he now calls The HELMET Project. I learned about it when he invited me to his downtown studio to view his recent works.
My first impression, upon seeing these provocative paintings lining the walls of Chapman’s studio, was something like, “Cool.” In fact, I am pretty sure I said that out loud as I stared at these portraits of various men, women and children, each donning a unique forged-metal helmet. The helmets are so expertly rendered and photo-realistic that it’s surprising to learn they exist only in the artist’s imagination.
Then, as you study further, you notice that there is a lot more going on here than you realized. The distinct design of each headpiece seems to suggest an array of functions, yet remains ambiguous. It is unclear whether they are worn for simple
adornment or for protection in combat or sport. It is ambiguous whether they are intended for sensorial enhancement or repression. It is ambiguous whether they hearken to some ancient past or an imagined future. It is clear however, that they offer the subjects a degree of anonymity while at the same time defining a new identity. As unique and provocative as each helmet is, and this is the kicker, they are all unmistakably designed to eliminate eyesight.
So we have a series of 12 stellar oil-on -canvas paintings mounted on wooden panels measuring 30” high by 22” wide. And they are ready to be exhibited at a gallery near you.
But that would be expected. And this artist is not known for taking the predictable path. Instead, Chapman’s conceptual brand of thinking led him to an unorthodox plan to install the helmeted portraits in various inhabited and abandoned spaces around Birmingham. Each installation is to be documented by a professional photographer and then bound together in a book. This unusual approach seems to amplify the absurdity of the predicament this body of work reflects.
To view museum-quality paintings hung with precision in such unconventional places is a jolt in itself. Then as the intrigued viewer studies the curious tableau, they are thrust into the swirl of questions that don’t always lead to tidy answers.
It was intriguing to accompany Chapman on several of his installation missions. Each environment presented a unique set of challenges and yielded an entirely different effect. Underneath the overgrown underpass by Sloss Furnaces, I felt as though I was spying on military combatants skulking blind-folded through a cloistered jungle in military formation. An abandoned smokehouse chamber was haunting and post-apocalyptic in it’s gritty underworld way. A brightly lit library, flanked by the voluntarily sightless figures, suggested a deliberate avoidance of facts and information. The setting of the print shop, with all of those machines designed to multiply and disperse information, seemed to decry an intentional ignorance of a different sort, one more imposed than chosen. I found myself thinking about propaganda and how misinformation or distortions are such powerful tools of manipulation.
As you can see, each location is carefully selected by Gary and is rife with layers of meaning.
So as we mark the 10th anniversary of the unimaginable atrocity we know collectively as September 11th, let us pause from the naming of victims and villains. Perhaps the passage of time has blunted the horror sufficiently to enable us to rummage through the rubble in an honest search of a deeper truth, a fearless understanding of the tides that brought us here. This enlightenment would offer hope for a better future, not just for ourselves, but for our entire extended human family.
I felt personally challenged by these sightless warriors to do just that. I don’t know if that is what Chapman intended for me to take away from this collection of stunning and curious paintings. However, like the best of art, each viewer is invited to experience the work as an individual and invoke their own unique resonance with it. I wonder what yours will be.
To learn more, visit www.garychapmanart.com