A Beautiful Day, oil, 9 x12
By Virginia Campbell
The $64,000 question for every painter who does figurative work is this: What is it about a figure painting that distinguishes it as an aesthetic experience rather than just the relatively accurate representation of a certain human being? To an important degree, it’s the same thing that keeps us looking at any painting—the integrated drama of composition, color, brushwork, and so on. The particular beauty of any figure also grabs our eye, as does an interesting expression or a specific gesture or a unique garment. What absorbs us emotionally and intellectually might be the figure’s relationship to its space and environment. But especially because it’s a human figure, it’s all these things plus an added emotional edge, and the artists who paint to that edge make pictures that matter.
Summer Innocents, oil, 14 x 14
Arizona artist Nancy Chaboun is such an artist. “The emotional content of the painting is primarily in the composition,” she says. In a beautiful day, a woman is lying on her back on a striped towel on an emerald green lawn in the sun, one elbow raised almost to the upper edge of the canvas as she shields her eyes, her other arm bent in a protective V right in the heart of the picture, and her hips, invisible under a lemon-yellow dress, angled slightly to show that she has turned toward us and that the eyes mostly hidden in shadow are aimed our way.
Every brush stroke in the piece works to support and emphasize the bold composition by retaining a lushly abstract quality—no detail lowers the intensity of the composition’s push-pull suggestion of relaxation and disturbance, acknowledgement and reluctance. The woman’s hair flows out above her head to the right edge of the painting and her elongated figure stretches across the canvas to the lower left—it is an entire, vulnerable world of personal sunlight she’s inside, and we’re right on the edge of it, perhaps not entirely welcome.
In another of Chaboun’s paintings, evening chill, a woman in a pink shawl stands just off-center with a pond and greenery behind her. Her head is slightly tilted as she looks our way with an expression that seems to both note and ignore our existence. In the middle of everything is this pink shawl—the woman holds it close as if it protects her, yet it is the only hue that keeps her from blending naturally into the landscape, which her posture of passive grace suggests she might like to do. It’s often said that brush strokes are an artist’s signature, and Chaboun adds, “Brush strokes are where the artist’s love of the subject come through. In musical terms, brush strokes are the playing of the notes.”
In painting figures, Chaboun is constantly calculating how to build a composition that holds power and how to keep her brush strokes alive. But she’s also thinking, “How can I keep the viewer’s eye moving?” Her various means of creating psychological possibility while keeping a sensual, abstract painterliness make for evocative paintings that support her success as both an artist and teacher. Since she was born in 1954, Chaboun’s success might suggest that her career is at its mid-point. Actually, however, she didn’t start painting until 1991, nor did she work in design or illustration in the preceding years…
Featured in November 2007
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