Friday, January 18, 2013

A visit to Sydney Chastain-Chapman's studio by Elsie Kagan

I took a trip out to Hoboken on a sunny mid-October day to visit Sydney at her home studio. She is currently creating work in a petite space tucked into her apartment, awaiting a move this winter that will allow her to spread out a little more.

Her space constraints have dictated that she focus on paper-based collages, which are a critical part of her image-making in any case, and a big source of ideas for her larger, painted works.

The works she showed me continue to explore themes and ways of image making that have been part of her working process for a number of years. They are made up of compilations, piles, collections of patterns, figures, and objects, all sharing space and coming together to describe an environment that exists somewhere between desire, aspiration, and reality.

The works in her studio were all single, female figures that were surrounded by carefully collected and constructed worlds. There are handbags, arranged botanicals in vases and urns, furniture and other references to interior design, and of course the figures themselves. The women are all bedecked in complicated and elaborate clothing and accessories, and sit self-consciously and alone in a world of their own creation: things they dress in and gather around themselves to help describe their identities and exert aesthetic control. And while there could be some amount of freedom and self-expression in that process, I discussed with Sydney how they seemed to me to be quite uncomfortable, removed, and unsuited to their choices. Admittedly, I know nothing about fashion and am highly biased towards function over form when it comes to clothing. But putting that aside, the women in Sydney’s current collages appear uncomfortable and encumbered by their garments, and some seem truly trapped. I also thought the issue of aging is playing out in the current work, since the women are maybe a little old for the outfits they are wearing, and often gaze to the side as if embarrassed or yearning for a kind of youth that has already come and gone.

Indeed, much of the work that Sydney has made in the last few years challenges me to think about the ways we use the things we wear and own as signifiers for who we want to be, as a way to broadcast to others how we want to be seen, how we wish we were and who we want to associate with (I think of pinterest here, as one venue where this tendency endlessly unspools).
There is one very funny, and compelling painting on Sydney’s website that I feel confronts these issues in an especially wry way: it is called, “The Collection”
In it, we see a couple proudly standing beside a collection of maybe pre-Columbian statues. While the image brings up a lot of questions about ownership, privilege, collecting, and the function of art in our lives, I am also interested in the way the wife is placed perfectly behind the collection as if she is literally his trophy, his hands on her shoulders in a manner that seems a shade problematic.

While there is a lot of content going on in Sydney’s work, it also bears mentioning that it is compelling and complex on a formal level as well, as the various perspectives, surfaces, texture, and colors fight and work with each other to make up the whole. There is a lot of playfulness and openness in the way the images are drawn and put together.

Considering Sydney’s work and work-space are in flux, we decided not to identify a particular piece just yet for the show. I feel like the women in Sydney’s collages are doing some soul searching right now, and look forward to seeing what’s on their minds next.