History as a riddle

Riddles, enigmas and all things mystifying fascinate mankind and very probably have done so all through his history here on earth. We become familiar with visual puzzles as though we are children tracing numbered dots to reveal a fish or flower or faces in a drawing of tree leaves and bushes. At the other end of the scale, many of the vivid canvases of the Flemish master, Pieter Bruegel, must have teased his sixteenth-century contemporaries with their cryptographs as they baffle experts today.

Stephen Chapin, who paints today in the SoHo artists' colony in Manhattan, presents his sense of history in a series of paintings filled with enigmas. The first of this group is titled ''Allegiance.'' But one should feel that his riddles are not necessarily to be solved, but rather to be savored.

''Allegiance'' is a large painting, measuring seven feet across and five feet high. This size enables the viewer standing directly in front of it to accept and interact with the odd landscape, which he will find spacious, airy and rather more pleasant than otherwise. The huge head is white and subtly modeled by a slightly greenish light, illuminating it against very dark blue-green water and a stormy sky which changes from greenish on the left to gray on the right. The figures and objects represent those things the artist feels are the early necessities of his society or civilization. While the identity of each is obvious, the meaning of each is ambiguous and left open to interpretation.

Consider the figure on the left. From his khaki outfit and the chevrons on his sleeve, he is clearly a soldier, but his gesture is far from clear. Is it a salute, or is he shielding his gaze from, or avoiding eye contact with, the dominant head? We can be reasonably sure that the latter symbolizes the concept of a head of state. But in Chapin's uninflected presentation, it appears neither benevolent nor malevolent. It is just there. It may even be just an empty plaster head. However, if one examines the profiles of the man and the head, one sees that they are indeed similar, and this deepens rather than solves the riddle.

Chapin exhibited three other paintings in this series and expects that there will be more to come. The head motif occurs in all (and carries over from a previous series of more personal imagery), but the identical head does not reappear. In the third painting, ''Expansion,'' another enormous head (this time with classic Roman features) looms behind three smaller heads, one of which displays feminine features.

The rabbit in the right-hand corner is painted in a crouching tension which probably indicates a wild thing of nature - nature being another allegiance. Is the ladder behind it a cipher for man's desire to mount higher? At the top of the post against which the ladder rests, a tightrope supports a small object which seems to derive from one of David Smith's huge stainless steel ''Cubi'' sculptures. Does this reveal the artist's sense of art's necessity to civilization and also the precarious position of art and the artist in society?

To the left of the head, a small boat bravely sails into the stormy sea and sky, while to the right of the head and the green leaves, an all but invisible steamship appears on the horizon. In these, we may read of the explorative and inventive bent of humankind visually expressed as present and to come.

This is but one of many ways to interpret these painted runes; each way would depend on the viewer's own responses to the painted objects and his own sense of what history is and what civilization requires. But whether or not he agrees with the artist that these are the beginning concomitants of history, there is much stimulation in the speculation on the textual inscrutabilities and pleasure to be derived from the calm harmonies of Chapin's handsome color sense and his ability to create a palpable, habitable spaciousness. And then, too, perhaps human history may be defined as a study of riddles.

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