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"Phantom Vessel", oil on canvas, 16 x 22", 1995.


by William Hemmerdinger

(Tatistcheff / Rogers, Santa Monica) Michael Chapman's recent paintings are a requiem mass for the recollected or imagined urban environment of California. These finely crafted representational works depict "a sensuous, semi-surreal city existing outside of real time." Born in Inglewood in 1957 and currently a resident of Orange County, Chapman's version of Southern California references a depopulated strand of beach and inland cities. Californian's who remember the Bell Gardens, Huntington Beaches, Redondo Beaches, or Tustins of the 1950's and 60's will sense something known and uncanny here.

Chapman arranges his compositions with California architecture and hardscape--street lamps, lawn furniture, park benches, trains, planes, and always the 1940's era automobiles. Poised in the compositions in dissonant array like children's toys, these objects have a psychologically disturbing presence. This feature recalls the manner in which objects were singled out and isolated by Edward Hopper.

In Conversation in the Sun the cars are akin to players on a stage or, perhaps more accurately, to the stage-craft without the players. The imaginary landscape is populated with objects that are precisely defined without being heavily detailed. Every form is articulated carefully in light and shadow. Pacific Light emphasizes the sculptural form of these shapes--especially the automobiles. Is this work engaged in a study of real and imagined sculptural volume? Forms as large as elephants and as mobile and fast as man can make them. In use and out of use cars, planes, trains, roads, railbeds and airstrips have embroidered the surface of the earth and created new issues for architects, urban planners--and artists.

The cars and planes here represent more than just modes of transport. The once charmed and charming history of California car culture has given way to the automobile as the defining presence in our lives. Commuters endure long hours in Eddie Bauer interiors. The homeless and impoverished live months and years in a shelter originally made by Oldsmobile. Further, these cars have become our transportable home office, business tool, serving multiple functions beyond the obvious. As a means of social chaos it is the means of drive-by shootings whereby children may die senselessly and faceless cowards quickly breeze off beyond the chain link fences and into the night. The automobile has become a featured player in a sometimes astonishing degree of moral terpitude--down to a certain infamous white Ford Bronco.

Chapman has recreated a fragile and brief world like the one described by Raymond Chandler--without the flaw of humanity. Phantom Vessel is one of the most successful works. It captures an arcadia which is felt by every Californian, but perhaps was never really seen. Brightly painted promises of a spiritual and physical bounty are resurrected. Chapman's cars and street lamps are not idealized, romantic, macabre or goofy interpretations of car culture, they are sensitive and deeply probing inquiries into the state of the human spirit.