Plumage, Kevin Chupik’s new show at Brett Wesley Gallery, is as dazzling as the feathers of the most exotic avian. It presents split-canvas diptych paintings of birds and women’s body parts, reducing them both to aesthetic objects and demonstrating how far apart and close together we are as species. The avian and the woman, two seemingly disparate anatomies, are united in a stunningly attractive—dare we say a—fashion.
“I liked the premise about having the bird world and human world, the feathers and the skin, and how they mirror each other,” the 43-year-old explains. “I love the contrast, too, and the diptych seemed like a good format to compare these two worlds.”
One striking example of this comparison is “Nectar,” in which the scalloped plumage of a ruby-throated hummingbird sits above the …. er, scalloped plumage of a young lady’s panties. While gazing at the 45-by-32-inch painting, the title takes on an undeniably potent meaning.
“The fact that there are birds in my paintings isn’t as much as a celebration of the natural as it is a commentary on the human condition,” he says. “I find the birds to be ornately poetic, yet full of composure in their resonant ability to speak to the content that the figurative side represents.” Perhaps that’s a clue as to why “Nectar” seems to be a portrait of a bird and a still life of a woman’s body.
Chupik has always been enamored of art. As a little kid, he learned to draw and paint by copying whatever images he could find in the encyclopedia and, later at age 9, by imitating the techniques of wildlife artist Ray Harm.
But it wasn’t until Chupik attended art school at Texas Christian University that he considered being a serious artist. Chupik had his first solo show as a junior, selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of his own artworks in the campus hallways. By 21, he’d established a base of long-term collectors who still buy from him today.
He went on to grad school at University of Colorado, where he butted heads with the politicized and conceptual academic art world. Even then, he preferred organic animal and human forms to the coldly conceptual. While the university wasn’t the best fit, the geography of Colorado was ideal for the outdoors-adventure buff. The mountain air and gorgeous terrain of Boulder suited his athleticism. Upon graduating in ’95, Chupik moved to Las Vegas. Taking a break from art, he worked for Escape the City Streets, conducting scenic tours in Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. His art career was receding further in his life’s rearview.
Then the unthinkable happened.
During a solo hike, Chupik fell off a 30-foot cliff on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, seriously injuring his spine and rendering him a wheelchair-bound paraplegic who still had use of his arms. He made a commitment then to rededicate his life to art, and he created the first series of paintings since his accident using his kitchen table as an easel.
In the years that followed, Chupik’s career blossomed. He made major sales to collectors and eventually became an art professor at the College of Southern Nevada. Chupik shrugs off the notion that his choice of natural and anatomical subject matter symbolizes any yearning that he feels to escape his chair’s confines. Case in point, his previous body of work was of Soviet femme fatales. Besides, he has use of his upper legs, and a brace allows him to drive.
But enough of that paraplegia shit, he says. The injury doesn’t define him in any way, and the only limitation on him as an artist is the scope of his imagination, which shows no bounds.
Having finally found his artistic home in Las Vegas, Chupik feels like he’s part of a growing arts movement. Living close to the gallery and the culture spots downtown has advantages. “I’d love to see the Downtown Arts District flourish,” he says. “I’d like to see Vegas’ arts community become like other cultural districts in big cities.”