Surrendering to the moment

'Lane Change’

The walls of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art vibrate with Robert Chapman’s large color-packed paintings that seem to breathe and pulsate and contain a three-dimensional quality.

Viewers’ imaginations can run wild, perceiving figures and faces manifesting among the thick brush strokes in these nonrepresentational works.

“I don’t have any preconceived idea with the image,” said Chapman, although he carefully plans his works.

“It’s sort of dangerous to go about designing a painting around brush strokes,” he said. “It’s sort of a disaster waiting to happen.”

Intrigued by the unexpected or unknown as a painting develops, Chapman said he must be willing to surrender to the moment and allow a painting to have its own life.

“I’m always exploring what paint can do,” said the artist, who is especially smitten with the texture of oil on canvas. “That’s the seductive part for me.”

As Chapman wields his brush, his heart, mind and hands are all in synch. “You want all these processes to be so effortless that you basically breathe it,” he said. “The old standard still works the best,” Chapman said, of balancing consciousness, intellect and control. With mere technique, the liveliness is lost, and if the main thrust is emotion, the painting will get out of hand.

“If you just have the passion, that will take you down some wild road.”

His current show reflects his style of the last 10 years, as well as the 1980s. In the 1990s he shifted to more of a story line. “I felt I wanted more control of the paintings instead of leaving it up to the viewers.”

Chapman’s subject matter comes from deep in his psyche, not from the view from his San Miguel studio of his gardens, sculptures and the surrounding vineyards.

It’s a leap from Long Island, where for 20 years he and wife Brooke lived on their five-acre horse farm. On the West Coast, they’ve found a warmer climate and a place for Brooke’s horses. Chapman feared that his artist wife, an East Coast native, wouldn’t adapt to the often dry brown hills, but “she’s grown to love it” since moving here in 2000.

In their search for a new place to settle, however, they didn’t want to be culturally isolated. “Unfortunately, we didn’t do our homework too well,” Chapman said. Still, he and his wife have grown to love their home and locale out in the country.

In East Hampton, from 1980 to 1990, Chapman was an assistant to abstract impressionist master Willem de Kooning. “It was a very special time period,” he said.

Chapman and one or two others stretched canvases, set up palettes, stored and shipped paintings, took inventory and anticipated the elderly artist’s needs. He was also able to observe the famous artist at work during that time. “It was exciting and it was educational.”

Born and raised in Santa Monica, Chapman took up oil painting at age 10. Throughout his career he has explored surrealism, abstract impressionism, sculpture, and figurative work for a pop art gallery in New York City’s SoHo, life-size fashion-model-type nudes. He soon found that work “too safe.”

“For better or worse, I’ve gone after what’s inspiring rather than what is comfortable.”