The Aunties

The Aunties

You know the way Gill gets over excited when she loves something and immediately turns into a happy lunatic? Of course you do. Well, this month I’m going to join her. Not about the cutting-edge health and beauty products that she constantly discovers for us, (as divine as they are) but about cutting-edge art.

And I don’t mean glass cubes suspended in a glass cube suspended from a glass ceiling but a series of portraits of women, called the Aunties, which are just as radical in their own way. The first time I saw them, I laughed. They looked like they were having such a fine old time, I couldn’t help but smile.

The radical part? They are naked. And they are old. The shock of the new is really the surprise that ageing, in all its mottled, wrinkled and sagging glory, should be so lovingly recorded.

The mere fact that old age can be considered beautiful goes against everything we know, or, rather, anything we see in a perfection driven culture. Images of glossy limbed youth and flawless skin without blemish or wrinkle are so prevalent, they have become the norm. We know it’s not true, but we do everything we can to cover up the truth.

And just in case you think this is some form of strident feminism or the paintings are intended to make an aggressive political point, they are not. The artist, Aleah Chapin is 27, petite, pretty and gently spoken. She grew up in a small town (and I mean, really, really small) where all the kids hung out together and the mothers looked out for them. They call themselves the Aunties – hence the title. When Aleah was born, there were ten of them crammed into her mother’s bedroom, so they are genuinely family. And the paintings have all the warmth, camaraderie and intimacy that implies.

When she was still at grad school, as the prestigious New York Academy of Art is known, she won the BP Portrait award at the National Portrait Gallery, for one of these paintings. She was one of the youngest ever to win the award, beating a field of over 2,000 applicants, but was so unconvinced she would even be considered that she almost didn’t bother to submit a painting. “And the shipping from New York is so expensive.”

She is at an age which is particularly susceptible to trying to achieve an impossible perfection, so I asked her if it was a reaction to that. “I was raised by such a strong group of women that I try not to let it affect me but of course it has. It is definitely not a reason for my work but I feel very strongly that things should be real. I didn’t set out with grand goals. I wanted to show a different way of seeing. I was trying to get at something that is universally human. A personal connection between people rather than the subject.”

For some people, they are a step too far. “Disgusting”, “Revolting”, “I don’t want to see naked old bags.” Well, best look away, people, because, guess what, it’s going to happen to you.

Most people, however, love them. Aleah has been amazed by the positive response. “It was a very personal project but I think part of the reason may be that people are looking for something real and more authentic – not just in art but in the way we want to know what’s in our food and how we live our lives. No matter what their age or sex, so many people have responded in a really human way.”

I think that’s why I got so excited about them too. They are brimming with humanity in an era of inhuman beauty but perhaps, most of all, they embrace age and beauty with a warmth and humour that we can all celebrate.


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