No one wants the New Year to be melancholic, but it often is. Chalk it up to fear. Standing on the opaque surface of your future inspires less wonder and more apprehension with each unresolved resolution; time passes, as it always will, and that which lies ahead grows daunting when we realize that the promise of the future is not, in fact, promised. A basic truth – surfaces are unsettling if you are unsure of what supports them.
Among us fearful, one man delights in the uncertain promises of the surface. Edward Evans, non-objective artist and Professor Emeritus of art at Southwest Minnesota, fuses the formal stylings of the Old Masters with the bravura, spontaneity, and conceptual approach of the Abstract Expressionists. His primary tool? An airbrush. The result? Masterpieces of illusory texture and immense feeling. “Once, a man came into the gallery with two women and explained the photographic process that he thought was used for my pictures. When the gallery director told the man that these were not photographs, the man said, “they are not paintings” and angrily left the gallery. I thought that was cool.”
Evans’ images feel transposed from a separate reality. But as he likes to point out, “the paradox of illusion and reality is not a contradiction if we consider ‘illusion’ as one of the many shifting realities of life.” His work is… trippy. Evans’ sophisticated technique and masterful implementation of light emulsify creased and embossed textures with vibrant shards of color. The result is both alien and distinctly human; wrinkled fractals fold and rut between hard linearity and dimpled softness. A recent piece entitled “Reconstruction” (2018, acrylic on linen) evokes both the embered facets of quartz and the organic motion of flesh. Such a playful use of form is incredibly sensual, the subsequent images stimulating and subjective. Evans says it best – “the way we see interests me.”
Navajo (2017, acrylic on linen)
Evans began his career in the early 1960s with time-consuming hard edge paintings related to optical art. “Because they were exhibited in major museums, I wanted to produce faster.” His solution involved masked-off shapes made with tape and newspaper and gradients crafted with spray cans of car paint. “At that time, not even knowledgeable New Yorkers were familiar with airbrushes.” Evans tried thinning acrylic paint with water to use with an industrial spray painter intended for cars. He leaned even further into his fascination with misleading surfaces, priming and sanding his canvases to more closely resemble photographic paper. “Few people knew what my paintings were. I showed them to a gallery director and she angrily told me ‘we do not show illusions in this gallery.’”
Evans might be a master of illusion, but his oeuvre is no side show schtick. Any examination of his work reveals a disquieting depth to his presentation of surface. The immensity of his scope is hard to ignore when a single image suggests a dusky hunk of stone, a fingerprint, a swath of rumpled silk, the tumultuous ravines of a brain – Mother Earth in one violent gradation. Take, for example, the recent “Beyond Low Earth” (2017-18, acrylic on linen). Translucent ribbons of color flow over the more classically geometric central figure – a Pangean orb with a white-hot core. This imagery evokes the likes of Strazza’s Veiled Virgin or Sanmartino’s Cristo Velato. But unlike those masterpieces of marble, Evans does not provide substantive stone. We begin and end with the veil. In the words of Aldous Huxley at his door of perception, “for the artist as for the mescaline taker draperies are living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being.” Like I said… trippy.
Beyond Low Earth (2017-18, acrylic on linen)
But the disquieting effect of Evans’ textured surfaces cannot be attributed to mere hallucinogens. After years of honing his craft, Evans grew to understand “how shapes in fabric, metal and paper are determined by underlying forms, movement and bending. It has become such a natural part of my visual vocabulary that I use it freely and abstractly.” Evans, the master of veils – so good at making the mask he no longer needs the face to mold it. “Airbrushing is so natural for me that I no longer think about technique. I work in a meditative state, trusting instincts and feelings, enabling thoughts and memories to become imbedded into my paintings.” Realism and abstraction are blended, as are past and present, memories and feelings; a communion of the inner and outer world. The use of airbrushing in Evans’ work encourages the eye to constantly shift perspectives from one poetic image to another. Nothing is ever made stable, with images shifting at the same pace his viewers understand them. “Images and goals move on and fade as, once we achieve them, they somehow seem changed, different than what we had expected.” In other words – poet Paul Valéry’s to be exact – “God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.” No one wants the New Year to be melancholic, but it often is.
In regards to Evans’ work, art critic and journalist Lorella Pagnucco Salvemini makes a cogent argument for the agitation of his airbrush: “these days, forced as we are to continuously stumble on the surface of things – thoughts, bodies, clothes, words and visions, we begin to suspect that these surfaces might hide something deeper, and we end up being torn by doubts, consumed by doubts, which shake our whole mental superstructure inherited from the individual and collective past that has made us what we are but is no more.” People will always be scared and excited by surfaces, our itch to investigate them borne of our desire to discover a little more about who we are, why we are here, and where we are supposed to go. But surfaces are relational – we assume they exist as the outer shell of that ever-elusive “more”. A beautiful surface is seen as a promise of something beautiful beneath. But what if all there is, is surface? If memories are just stories we tell ourselves? If the promise of the future is not, in fact, promised?
Approaching the Light (2011, acrylic on linen)
For those of us who struggle with the bottomless future (or at least, struggle to reconcile the fact that where we want to go may not exist), an answer dances in Evans’ work. “Purity and simplicity are virtues. So is beauty. Beauty is important because it stimulates senses and attracts attention to unfamiliar places and ideas. Beauty is also important, because only beautiful things will be remembered.” Surfaces have always been associated with insignificance. Beauty is only skin deep, as they say. But that is exactly Evans’ point. We fear surfaces, the beginnings of things, because we fear the inevitable dissolution of the illusions that prop them up. Get over it. Enjoy the gift of impressions, of fleeting presence, of the dawn of January for its own sake. The New Year makes us uncomfortable the way Evans’ art makes us uncomfortable, the way beauty makes us uncomfortable. Silk slipping through fingers, skin slipping from bone. We cannot hold it in our hands. Our future is not made of marble. We can only feel, only caress those parts of life that are beautiful. And a new year is truly, truly beautiful. Surfaces are anything but skin deep.
I asked Evans about what he personally does to keep the human fear of surfaces at bay. I will leave his answer here in full: “for me, painting provides peace and fulfillment. This is not only surface. Experiencing the process always brings a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond the quality of the finished painting. Beginning a day viewing forest, birds and sunrise and then painting is a blessing… Desert sunrises and sunsets are even more beautiful. Relax; meditate. Trust your feelings and enjoy your existence. Let your thoughts expand beyond the surface. Like a man who owns one of my paintings states, “Notice how colors and shapes change with different points of view and changes in the time of day and lighting.” Good luck in 2019.
Transitory Space (2016, acrylic on linen)