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 Building.
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.