Chapman (Ojibwe) is a Minneapolis-based artist, flute maker, art
historian and teacher. His artwork sits between two worlds: complexity
and simplicity, humorous and serious, inside and outside. I sat
down with Mr. Chapman to talk about his work.
AC: First off, your watercolors
are surreal. Wood grain panels becomes silhouettes, animals and
elders are peering around walls. I'd argue that the surreal aspects
are uncanny, unsettling yet funny. I think it might be called "Dark
Humor." Would you agree?
JC: You've got it perfectly... can
we go have lunch now?
AC: No! But would you agree? I
mean, I think some of your work is scarey as hell.
JC: I've always been inspired by René
Magritte. I love surrealism because it goes beyond the immediacy
of knowing what an object is, and where it comes from and how it's
used. Realism is all great. If you can do something photographically
realistic, that's wonderful. Abstract art relies more on experiencing
it, because you are in front of it and that is what it is. But with
Surrealism, there's always a narrative involved. Narrative work
requires you to create a narrative in either in your own mind, or
maybe you hear the original artist's story, but it takes you somewhere
else. Any time you have something that is figurative there is always
another story within it. My stuff is narrative and surreal... but
windows aren't always windows and doors aren't always doors. There
are multiple meanings to all those things, like silhouettes and
animals. For example, what is a window...? You can see from the
inside out, the outside in.
AC: It is a border of sorts.
JC: It is! And it's a transition point.
Doors don't only keep you out, or keep out other things, they're
symbolic of a transition between two states. Even stairways are
symbolic of ascension, and a lot of Native people use that. If you
look at the work of Hopi people for instance, you'll see ladders.
They are symbolic for ascending or descending into something else.
So, when I use a window or a door or a highway or whatever, it's
about multiple ideas. I try not to give people too much of an idea
of what these things could be, because you might ruin it for people.
Because they might see what they need to see. For example, you see
something scary looking in this window.
AC: Yes, well... I feel like I'm
on the outside of the house and there is a broken window with reflections
of trees. This mask appears to be looking out from within house
at me... right?
JC: Or conversely, it can be the other
way around. Based on what side of that barrier you are on.
AC: This presents a kind of denial.
Your context is either a window or door, but your framework doesn't
offer a context to whether or not your viewer is inside or outside.
JC: It is ephemeral, but it's painted
like that for a reason. If I connected the window to an actual wall
or siding, it would change the context. This allows you a mental
mobility to go to either side, either you are inside or outside.
You're looking in on him and he is looking in on you. But, that
piece is Grandma's House. And the sad thing is my grandma never
had a door that nice. When she would leave the house she would put
a car tire on the door. That's how she would lock up. That's how
you knew she wasn't home, because there was a tire on the front
of the door. And sometimes she would sneak the tire in front of
the door when she was actually home so she wouldn't be bothered.
And you'd think, "Oh, the car tire is there, she must be out."
AC: That appears to be one of your
motifs, or something you've made symbolic: a shared experience of
a stressed socio-political state and low economic standings amongst
us. Economic disadvantage in your works, like "Check's in the Mail"
or "Fast Food", appear to be commenting on a disadvantaged economic
standing... but the work is also funny.
JC: You have to. That goes hand and
hand with being Native. I did an interview one time after an exhibition
on Indian Humor and I was asked about that show. And the interviewer
asked me, "Do Indian people laugh?"