A shirtless, brawny man speckled with bruises and bloody cuts stands practically nude. Clad in only a lavender bondage harness and tight Speedo-style neon underwear, he wields a knife in one hand and a rosary in the other. Most of his face and legs are cropped out, forcing the viewer to confront the more taboo, sexualized features of his body.
“People said it was too sexual or too violent,” artist and art and design senior Riley Chapman said. “I don’t want to hear ‘too violent’ or ‘too sexual’; I want a ‘why.’ We’re older than that.”
To Chapman, who prefers gender neutral pronouns (they/them/their), this painting and other works showcase the resilience of the queer community in a tumultuous world.
“Throughout the whole series, it’s just resilience,” Chapman said about their paintings. “It’s about shining through the chaos.”
Looking at Chapman’s paintings offers the viewer a psychedelic and vibrant view into their thoughts about the queer experience. Set in a dystopian and fantastical future, Chapman’s paintings use a dramatized, cartoon-like vision of the future to examine the political and social issues facing queer-identified individuals today.
“This is a student and artist who really has something to say,” art and design painting professor Laura Krifka said.
Krifka remembers meeting Chapman while teaching an intermediate painting class. The course offers more creative freedom than beginning classes. Students often struggle to find their way, Krifka said. At first, she was not sure how serious Chapman was.
“It wasn’t until the final painting where [Chapman] did this combination of film noir and gay pornography and combined them into a single painting,” Krifka said. “[Chapman] won an award in the student show for that painting, as a non-studio major. [They] got one of the biggest painting awards that we have.”
Krifka was impressed by how Chapman translated their quirky humor and the ideas they care about into the painting. It instantly resonated with not only their classmates, but with the judge who came to the student show, Krifka said. After this, she knew Chapman would be a student to watch.
Although Chapman is finishing up a degree in graphic design, they chose to also complete the studio art senior portfolio project. On top of an extra senior project, Chapman also finds time to work in the University Art Gallery and Robert E. Kennedy Library, be in Cal Poly Drag Club and participate in AIGA — Cal Poly’s chapter of the professional association for design.
Why has Chapman taken on all the additional work?
“I just love painting,” Chapman said. “If it was up to me, I would just paint 24/7. I would just live in the studio if it was my choice.”
Doing the studio art portfolio project means Chapman will have at least three paintings in the BFA Senior Thesis Show in Spring 2019. In preparation, Chapman will all but live in the studio. Sometimes, they said, a painting takes Chapman as long as four months.
But despite all the hours they put into a painting, Chapman spends many of these without a brush in their hand at all.
Krifka’s teaching philosophy challenges students to see how much of an artist they can be before they even start painting. She hopes for students to think about how the way they approach the world can be infused with their artistic process.
“It changed not only how I paint in a technical sense, but how I think about the artistic process,” Chapman said.
“She pushes you,” Chapman added about Krifka. “She gives you just the perfect amount of push you need.”
The entire process is therapeutic, Chapman said. Chapman said they see impressions of themselves in the characters and scenes they create, allowing them to explore their own identity.
“I think it brings clarity,” Chapman said.
Painted in vivid acrylic on panel, the exaggerated nature of Chapman’s work forces the audience to consider the queer experience. In making the viewer contemplate the ways queer individuals must navigate violence and conflict, Chapman hopes to encourage people to live with kindness.
“I hope people look at them and are reminded to act out of love,” Chapman said.
Another one of Chapman’s painting shows a drag queen-inspired superhero in thigh-high teal boots and a scanty hot-pink dress. She wields a sword against a masked aggressor aiming a gun. A second fabulously dressed hero holds long knives and kicks high into the air, mimicking a Star Wars fight scene between a Jedi and Stormtrooper. Behind them lies the decapitated, scandalized head of a statue. Upon closer scrutiny, the dismembered head is clearly that of President Donald Trump. In the background, the skyline of a city crumbles into ruin.
“This one was cute,” Chapman said. “It’s super satirical.”
Chapman’s paintings often draw upon sci-fi images from their childhood. To them, both sci-fi and queerness are marked by being revolutionary. Figures reminiscent of Star Wars and Power Rangers interact with drag queen-inspired characters. The resulting style is uniquely distinct.
Chapman’s own involvement with drag influences their artistic flair. Chapman began doing drag in April 2018 under the stage name Miss Anya Cox. When painting characters into scenes, Chapman draws upon the extravagance of drag queens. This influences the exaggerated rendering of shape and bright colors.
Garet Zook, University Art Gallery specialist and Chapman’s boss, noted that Chapman likely gets criticism for these stylistic attributes, which may be viewed as informal. Zook said he appreciates how Chapman constructively takes criticism and learns from peers or professors without compromising their own artistic style.
“It’s so easy, especially when you’re in college, to be wishy-washy,” Zook said. “But I feel like [Chapman] is true to [themselves] no matter what.”
Chapman’s quirky, graphic style has caused peers to ask them why they insist on acrylic paintings instead of applying their graphic design knowledge to make art digitally on an iPad.
Although they have thought about how quickly they could produce more paintings this way, Chapman feels there is a coldness that comes with creating art digitally.
“There’s something to be said for spending time on a painting,” Chapman said. “It’s so intimate and so romantic.”
Despite the love affair with studio art, Chapman still dreams of starting a normal desk job in graphic design once they graduate.
“I would love to go to a nine-to-five design job. Then I’d come home and paint at night,” Chapman said.
Chapman said they hope to have a large solo art show of their own within the next few years. Their dream gallery for a show would be the Juxtapoz Clubhouse in Miami.
But for now, Chapman’s work may be viewed alongside that of other graduating seniors at this year’s upcoming BFA Senior Thesis Show. It will be held in the University Art Gallery May 31 through June 14.