Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Rob Chipman: Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity

Rob Chipman, “Reflections on Lake Powell,” reduction block print on paper, 12 x 24 in.

In “Reflections on Lake Powell,” printmaker Rob Chipman could be said to have reversed a common but popular natural sight. Beneath a classic desert sky of clouds too ephemeral to ever produce rain, a red rock landscape is doubled by its reflection on the reservoir’s surface. Normally, a reflection will have less detail than the original, but here the rock face is rendered in solid areas of a few colors: a major red, a milder brown, and black for the shadows, while in the water, the same red and brown engage in a riot of dancing highlights scattered in and through the black. Closer to the viewer’s location, a fourth color, the blue of water, joins them, and the four together produce a strong sense of perspective that the rocks, for the most part, do not provide. This is not a strictly realistic depiction. Of course, prints by their nature and to their credit usually display greater abstraction than other media, and that is the case here. But it is an effective choice, and how it came about is the key to this body of work.

When Chipman showed his reduction prints at Bountiful Davis Art Center a year ago, there was really little to compare them to. Reduction printing, in which a multi-color relief print is made using a single matrix that is re-carved for each successive color, has never been a major force in printmaking, and while the process can produce delightful works of art, as Chipman demonstrated then, and does again this year at Finch Lane (through January 6), a case could be made that only an expert could distinguish these from conventional, multi-plate prints — and often not even then. So it was only possible to compare the artist to … himself. Prints depicting contrasting subjects and treatments, including landscapes, weather, and skies from around the West and Europe, animals, flowers, and bodies of water, demonstrate his aesthetic range and the effectiveness of his varied strategies and devices. Considering that he was prevented from seriously embracing his interest in art until he was in his 60s and had retired, after which he largely taught himself, it’s an impressive accomplishment. But at Finch Lane, he demonstrates a philosophical depth that in retrospect was evident in works like “Reflections on Lake Powell,” but wasn’t obvious.

Rob Chipman, “Teton Trio,” 12 x 9 in.

Chipman begins his artist statement with a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which the jurist and author distinguishes three levels of difficulty in any undertaking. Initially, things will often appear simple, but Holmes disparages that illusion. With exposure, or with practice, greater complexity becomes apparent. Eventually, as complexity is mastered, a higher and more valuable simplicity may emerge. Holmes calls this “the other side of Complexity.” A perfect example of what he describes is mastery of an art, which so often seems easy until the apprentice learns to distinguish good work from bad, it being impossible to reliably do good work until that is learned. And so there is a tension visible in Chipman’s artworks: a search not for the simply easy solution, but for the simplicity to be found “on the other side of complexity.”

Learning takes place over time, but it would probably be a mistake to check the dates on these prints and look for superficial signs of less complexity or greater simplicity. Better, perhaps, to note the complex leaf markings and eloquent leaf pairing in “Coleus,” the vertical arrangement of light-struck elements in “Teton Trio,” or the forced perspective of crop rows in “Wasatch Dawn.” Just so, the placement of radiant sunlight in the distance, and shadows up close in “Slot Canyon #2” demonstrates the virtue of experience over impulse. Or, of course, stand before “Reflections on Lake Powell” and let the optics grab you. In art, the senses are properly meant to be shown that “other side of complexity.”

Rob Chipman, “Wasatch Dawn,” reduction block print on paper, 12 x 24 in.

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