MIA CHAPLIN: BETWEEN PAINTING & SCULPTURE

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST  |  ARTIST WRITE-UP  |  PAPIER-MACHE  |  PAINT

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“The sculptures are paintings. And the paintings have always been quite sculptural,’’ offers Mia Chaplin, who takes her infatuation with oil paint and human fleshiness a step further, building her own three-dimensional forms, carnal and voluminous – bodily receptacles, not for filling but for holding the artist’s dreamy impasto. Painterly objects in the true sense, characterised by colour, texture, and brushstroke.

BY OLIVIA BARRELL

MIA CHAPLIN’S OBSESSION WITH FLESH AND PAINT HAS PUSHED HER PAINTERLY PRACTICE TOWARDS THREE-DIMENSIONALITY

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Mia Chaplin | ‘Butter Jug’ | 2018 | oil on mixed media

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Mia Chaplin | ‘Go-go Juice Jug’ | 2018 | oil on mixed media

Mia Chaplin gravitated towards paint from the outset of her artistic journey, studying at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art in the late 2000s. Yet to define Chaplin as a painter would be to misunderstand the driving force behind her artistic expression, that of playful experimentation. Her relationship with painting began several years ago but her early work is characterised by more naturalistic depictions in colder desaturated colours such as blues and greys. ‘’When I started painting, I used a lot less paint than I do now. Now I have gone over to the dark side. It feels like the work is much more indulgent. My early work was much more scared of taking up too much room,’’ says Chaplin, whose practice has become increasingly intuitive over the years, a gradual leaning into her works and in a sense, a gradual pushing of the paint further out. There is a bold and confident looseness that has crept into her artworks with a thickening application of paint, nuanced and voluptuous. 

“In my work, it’s about translating the feeling. When I’m painting something, I want to focus on what it feels like rather than on what it looks like. So if I’m painting a flower that is dying, I want the paint to look like it’s rotting,’’ offers Chaplin whose gestural brushstrokes are assertive, self-assured and lend her work a visceral fleshiness that echo the artist’s own major fascinations with skin, body and death – morphing into a growing desire for stronger three-dimensionality in her work. “I kept going thicker and thicker with my paint but it wasn’t enough,’’ says Chaplin, leading to experimentation with the actual canvas by dipping the raw medium in wood glue for draping. 

 

Her early forms of artistic experimentation were centred around the creation of new surfaces that would receive her painted visual imagery. To take this a step further, Chaplin began to experiment with the creation of three-dimensional forms onto which she could paint. Drawn to the materials scattered around her studio, she began twisting and warping wire to create the initial forms that would be draped with layers of papier-mâché. Shortly after, Chaplin discovered Plaster of Paris, a medium that resonated with her practice. 

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Mia Chaplin | ‘The Oral Drive’ | 2018 | oil on mixed media

“I have often thought a lot about death and flesh, often decaying flesh, in my work. In some ways, I almost see my objects as carcasses. They are bodily. I like using the Plaster of Paris to build up form around the wire, as if I were dressing a wound.’’

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Mia Chaplin | ‘Puppy Love’ | 2018 | oil on mixed media

 

Mia Chaplin’s practice can be seen metaphorically as skin and bone – her early artistic expression, that of paint on two-dimensional canvas, as a culmination of the artist’s relationship with skin. Gradually, as Chaplin felt her limitations with the latter, she moved towards a deeper fascination with the forms beneath the skin. Her sculptural practice is the creation of a skeleton, or carcass, for the skin that is her painterly expression. Figurative depictions and dreamy portrayals of an abstracted natural world form part of Chaplin’s repertoire. There is a tenderness to the muted palette, juxtaposing the artist’s visceral application of paint, echoing many of the themes in her work around skin, bone and womanhood.

 

“I like to use violent images next to idealised female forms and it’s this underlying feeling of finding the place between protecting yourself and wanting to be desirable. Rejecting womanhood but also wanting it,’’ offers Chaplin. 

The artist’s recent sculptures, skeletal and playfully lopsided, are recognisable within Chaplin’s larger body of work due to her characteristic application of paint – despite a stripping away of subject matter and a more graphic mark-making. “I love experimenting because you have to be present. With my three-dimensional works, I really listen to the material and I ask it what it means. I love that the objects have a bodily, juicy, oozy feel to them.’’ More and more, Chaplin has become interested in breaking down the pictorial plane, experimental and curious about how her artworks might be experienced: “I have always wanted the eye to be constantly moving around the canvas. I enjoy painting on the surface of the vessels because it almost gives a sense of a story to them – I like that they are interactive and people can walk around them.’’

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Mia Chaplin | ‘Unsex me here’ | 2018 | oil on mixed media

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Mia Chaplin | ‘Unsex me here’ | 2018 | oil on mixed media

Understanding Mia Chaplin as an artist, is to understand the deep curiosity that drives her practice – for it has led to experimentation; with paint, medium and form. Her more recent three-dimensional body of work has grown out of this experimentation and frustration with the limitations of the flat canvas. In a way, Chaplin has created her own unique surfaces, existing in the round, onto which she could paint. These voluminous forms by Mia Chaplin represent a creative marriage of her two practices, one older (and painterly) and one more recent (and sculptural) that reveal the playful, curious and experimental nature of the artist herself.

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