GIRL POWER & MONKEY BUSINESS / ROBERT CHAPLIN
September 29- October 20th 2018.
Robert Chaplin’s Modern Mischief
Chaplin’s crosscurrent journey starts in the Bulkley Valley, where he was born in Smithers and raised in Telkwa, down the road from Hazelton. The great monuments and artworks that first captivated him were found locally and among the poles of Gitanyow, known then as Kitwancool, and notably painted by Emily Carr. ‘Ksan, the historical village created outside Hazelton to maintain living and artistic links to the ancient culture of the Gitxsan people, is the closest thing to a museum of art in the region. The impact of Gitxsan design on Chaplin’s work can be traced both visually and conceptually through his early work to the present.
Chaplin’s illustrations, talismanic objects and paintings owe many of their formal qualities to a synthesis of elemental Gitxsan design principles with traditional European and Asian modes of representation. The strength, flexibility and tension of line, sophisticated symmetry, robust volumes and finely hewed detail of his work create an overall unity that subsumes the representational within it.
These visual cues are meanwhile reinforced and enlivened by his direct and playful approach to both art and commerce, two outsized subjects that he forces to share a bed, with typical Chaplin guile. His formal synthesis is mirrored by a similarly rich fusion of social outsider/insider within art markets telescoping from the local neighbourhood to the international. Chaplin’s works are both splendid and whimsical. They are attentively surfaced, his sculpture incorporating precious metals or stones, his books professionally printed and bound. But he is equally adept at making crisp work with less luxurious, commercial or consumer materials. Clearly opulence itself is not a defining feature, while attention, craft and uniqueness are. Extravagance and parsimony are but part of an elaborate stage set upon which he examines cultural bonds within modernity.
His manipulations of and collaborations with publishing, advertising, The Guinness Book of Records, international celebrities and local notables help to illustrate the complex relationship he sees between culture and the marketplace. Compared to the rather delicate, conceptual incursions of N.E. Thing Co., Chaplin has taken a more brash, folksy and humorous approach to his investigations of social structures but the results of each support one another remarkably well
Chaplin conjures signs of culture and thereby draws attention to the uncanny spaces between us where bonds once were. The majority of his sumptuous sculptural works fit comfortably in the hand as if demanding or insinuating cultural use. His books feature rhyme and incantation, mythic content or carry actual transformational powers within. He rejects the fragmenting precision of the academic for the deeply coherent credibility of folk literature. He adopts the role of artisan/seller of unique objects, a culturally displaced figure operating on the margins of modernity. In this he makes a striking parallel to the mercantile approach of traditional artists around the world, who work selectively and sell both made to order and spec work directly to the modern market.
Chaplin’s legendary pitch is also laden with cultural and quasi-cultural significance, comprising both theatre and personal myth, generously illustrated and augmented, vastly entertaining and tinged with social criticism. His yarns spool in opposition to the spiralling commodification of art and toward an “enculturation” of his clients. His stories demand to be remembered and his works act as potent reminders thereof. The two coalesce into both pleasure and responsibility, implying new cultural bonds into existence, seemingly from thin air.
Chaplin situates himself firmly at the intersection of cultural tradition and modern disruption but he is not interested in going with the traffic. He is the customary roadside attraction, an apparition of the highway, a hitcher, a detour, or a losing of the way.
He is showman, craftsman, magus and spy. He is insider, outsider, phasmid and friend. As P.T. Barnum might say, Robert Chaplin is here to delight your senses and enlighten your wallet.