Chase's American Tribute|
By Lisa M Christian
Article from the September 10, 2004 issue Tennessee Star Journal
For my first art column and in deference to the upcoming anniversary of the
terrorist attacks, I decided to showcase an artist whose series "The Foundations
of Freedom" is a truly brilliant artistic comment upon our American institutions.
Rod Chase was born a Canadian, married an American, and his recent naturalization
became his inspiration for the series. Each painting in the series depicts a
scene from our capital Washington DC –the White House, the Capitol, the
Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and the Supreme Court
Chase's work is a perfect example of photo-realism, an artistic movement which
began in the 1960s. It is a reaction against the previous generation's abstract
expressionism of the Modernist Era. Chase is purely Postmodern. One will not
find obscure interpretations of nearly unidentifiable objects which so captivated
mid-twentieth century artists. His work appeals to a broader audience. He pays
painstaking attention to detail, and each work requires an enormous amount of
research and preparation. Hundreds of photographs are taken of the subject in
various times-of-day and season. But the paintings are not just the faithful
renderings of the photographs. Each represented building symbolizes the ideals
upon which our country was founded. Indeed, the works become monuments to monuments,
or as the Shakespeareans would have it (if the work in question had been a play
rather than a painting) metadrama. However, one must note the lack of the human
figure in every work of the series. It is characteristic of photo-realism in
general. The human presence is superfluous.
Nevertheless, the photographic fidelity of the works does not suppress the artist's
message or personality. The perspectives are majestic, as though the artist
is awed by his subject. One cannot help being touched by the almost child-like
enthusiasm of each piece.
Most of Chase's pieces are set in winter, usually at dusk or night, which allows
him to experiment with the effect of shadow upon artificial light, and the use
of shadow to define the contours of his subject. It is interesting that Chase's
street-lamps which seem to shine so bright, as though they are made of real
lightbulbs and electricity instead of acrylic paint, are themselves overpowered
by his dramatic shadows.
"America's Home" which depicts the White House is a lyrical and stately
testament to the importance of that mansion to our national identity. The American
philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that we "continually invent
anew the orders and ornaments of architecture." He said that the Parthenon
resembles the simpler abode of the ancient Greeks, and that we house our gods
and governments in similar fashion to ourselves so that we can connect to them.
It is reflective of our society, so that the grandiosement of the White House
is only the larger, more lavish version of our own homes. Now, I am not saying
that I entirely agree with that statement, but it does ring a little true. Besides
the fact that it has the basic amenities of Middle Class America, it is America's
home by virtue of the fact that our President resides there. The White House
is representative of the land, and the President, the people. Chase captures
this sentiment in his work. Gone are the cars of the dignitaries, the media,
and the flashing lights of the cameras. At the end of the day, it is only a
home, with a simple deserted drive.
But perhaps the most stirring and vivid reminder of our country's history is
the piece entitled "Line of Duty." It depicts the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial. The Memorial Wall is deserted at night and artificial lights illuminate
the crosses, flags and flowers left by visitors. The Washington Monument is
just visible in the background and brings one back to the birth of the nation
and to Washington as Father of the Country. His memory stands over them like
Odin of old, who sent his Valkyries among the dying of the battlefield to bring
them home to the heavenly Norsc Valhalla — only Chase's Valhalla is Christian.
Thus, the dead are tied to the forefathers and to the Revolution. It reminds
me of that line from Laurence Binyon's poem: "To the innermost heart of
their own land they are known / As the stars are known to the Night." It
isn't just a monument to the Vietnam Dead, but to all those who died in every
war. It doesn't matter if you didn't agree with the war, or if the soldiers
did or didn't — they are still the honored dead, fallen in the service
of their country. Whatever was the agenda of the politicians, the soldiers fought
only for America.
But Chase's paintings are more than the illustrations of our national buildings.
They serve as focal points of our national identity. The psychoanalyst Jacques
Lacan said that we discover our personal identities (or in this case, national
identities) by observing the objects of our environment, which he referred to
as mirror images. Therefore, without the images we cannot truly develop our
national identities. We need their foundation, because humans need the concrete
to represent the abstract — in religion as well as patriotism. Indeed,
these buildings, monuments and paintings are the cornerstones of our national
civil religion. We use the word adjective "unpatriotic" must in the
same way that we use "sacrilegious." Our flag is our Christian cross
and we fight and martyr ourselves for our nation as much as for our God. These
paintings become, then, like the icons of the saints or the mosaics of the cathedrals
of the Medieval Age.