The paintings of John Evans reveal a transcendent Iove affair with the New England coast. While studying at Boston University, John first came into regular contact with the rocky islands, secretive wetlands and beaches that frame the Atlantic. Now the places of solitude that John seeks are becoming increasingly rare; as population densities along the coast explode, uninterrupted vistas are replaced by expansive highways and anonymous architecture. However, the raw beauty of the coast survives in key locations, and John knows where to find every one of these spots. These days he frequents two favorite locations to make his oil-stick drawings: Plum Island in northern coastal Massachusetts, and Truro, one of Edward Hopper's favorite Cape Cod haunts. In these drawings, used as preparatory studies and as complete works in their own right, John records the blossoming grasses of Plum Island in spring, and in fall, the blazing rich hues which this same ground displays. In summer, John draws and paints the dunes of Truro, an otherworldly place of hypnotic, undulating sand.
Both of these locales, and other special sites throughout New England where John works, embody deep, epic spaces that John has come to know intimately. After years of working on site, he has distilled a cast of characters from these vistas that form a private language: the ocean light that saturates the early morning and late day skies, the grand, changeable clouds and the land and sea punctuated by isolated, lonely forms.
In every sense, John Evans is a painterly painter. He embraces a process that is ritualistically slow, primordially direct and unpredictably physical. Throughout the history of art, from the "Flung Ink" painters of ancient China to Willem De Kooning, the physical act of pushing, flinging and dripping paint is given unbridled authority to unmask the truth of a subject. The hand becomes a third eye, one that records vision through touch. For the painterly painter, the aesthetic experience lies between the unexpected marks and the clear retinal image. A painting must take on a life separate from its subject in order to reveal its inherent truth. To arrive at this essence is often a prolonged, arduous task fraught with missteps that require ruthless editing and great patience.
In Italian, the word pentimento (plural, pentimenti) means "repentance," and is used by artists to describe the residue of erased, scrubbed out or painted-over marks in a drawing or painting. These marks are evidence of a profound self-criticism, a repentance borne out of the belief that a painting can reflect the truth of a subject. Consequently, the painterly painter also bears the burden of knowing that getting halfway to the truth is no truth at all. It is important to remember that these marks are not aesthetically made but are the ghostlike remains of marks that have been unmade. The late paintings of Rembrandt and Titian are superb examples of this uncompromising painterly process. Their crusty surfaces barely disguise an exhaustive process of revision that sacrifices aesthetic elegance, qualities both artists could readily achieve",for structural power and psychological depth.
In the twentieth century, the drawings and paintings of Alberto Giacometti, Willem De Kooning and Philip Guston John Evans's teacher at Boston University) share a legacy of having been relentlessly erased and reconstructed. One of the best descriptions of this process is James Lord's 1965 account of Giacometti's working methods. Virtually the entire account is of Giacometti's obsessive scrubbing out of Lord's portrait again and again, a process rooted in the duality of Giacometti's sisyphean hopelessness of ever reaching his goal, but his deep satisfaction in trying.1
In a similar way, one can presume that if Philip Guston had accepted his elegant abstractions of the 50s as the final summation of his career, he never would have found the visual syntax for his late, great figurative paintings. These late, disturbing narratives are hidden in the liquid abstractions that immediately precede them. Fortunately for us, Guston felt an inner need to battle with his amorphous forms and, as a result, released his Ku Klux Klansmen, spiders and bare light bulbs, and Mr. Magoo cars.
So it is with John Evans's thick, crusty, hard-won depictions of the New England landscape. He goes out to paint something elusive, something hiding in the islands offshore or among the scrub trees, old boathouses and docks along the coast; something intangible but nevertheless palpably real. To reveal this intangible thing, he will exhaustively rework a painting in his studio. Oftentimes years after a painting has dried, John will reconsider its merits, get out his belt sander and obliterate whole sections, sometimes making holes in the canvas that require patching. Too, I have often heard John ruthlessly criticize the state of one of his paintings, but in the same sentence express a reverent wonder about the motif. I have been in his painting van when he suddenly pulls over to study a row of trees silhouetted against the sky or catching the last light of sunset. His enthusiasm is transcendental in the Emersonian tradition and he delights in the work of other painters who share that reverence, from Brueghel to James Weeks, one of John's most influential teachers at Boston University.
On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, John and I found ourselves in front of the great Brueghel landscape, The Harvesters.2 John began to describe its drawing as a musical web of patterns and rhythms that defines an expansive space of abstract horizontal and vertical planes, punctuated by intimate details. As he spoke, it became clear that he was describing his own work as well, that he had before him an art historical equivalent of his own aesthetic goals. As a painter, John has absorbed many lessons from his predecessors and their work, and is constantly returning to them for what more they can teach.
When discussing the work of his favorite artists, from Brueghel to DeKooning, and his teachers, Guston and Weeks, John frequently punctuates his descriptions with the word "sensual" as a standard of physical beauty achieved by these artists. Like his favored predecessors, John makes pieces that are at times pugilistic, at times gentle, but always physical. His oil paint may be runny and translucent, or troweled onto the canvas inches thick; at other times it is scrubbed on. As he builds up and breaks down his painted surfaces over time, his goal is to develop the painting's "sensuality." And the colors John uses further add to the sensual nature of his work. Soft pinks and blood reds resonate with the greens of fir and spruce trees. Blues the color of cake frosting contrast with hot yellows and oranges.
Like Brueghel, John punctuates his landscapes with details distilled from the motif, but in the way they are drawn, they appear as half-formed shapes that could easily disappear. Scrub bushes, trees, old boathouses and docks tremble and appear ready to change their identity. Clouds, on the other hand, look dense and opaque, as if to frame and counterbalance the unstable forms in a large space below.
John is, like his work, open and generous, but solitary. So, it is no wonder that he returns often to the deserted hills and beaches of the New England coast. He places his elusive forms at a great distance from the viewer, creating a deep space of contemplation.
– THOMAS LYON MILLS January 2001
Thomas Lyon Mills is a painter and an Associate Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.
1. Lord, James. A Giacometti Portrait. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday and Co., for the Museum of Modern Art, 1965.
2.Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), The Harvesters, 1565, oil on wood, 46V2 x 63V4", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1919.