Contributed by Mary Jones / Veteran Los Angeles artist Nancy Evans is bringing an installation of sculpture, painting and works on paper to Two Coats of Paint during her artist’s residency, which takes place from September 30 through October 6. Acclaimed for her original, independent vision, Evans combines a homespun sense of craft with a visionary’s quest for the cosmic. Making molds from found vegetation, Evans connects earthly decay to the Big Bang universe through rendered sculptures of Hindu symbols, lingams, kundalinis, and voids. They are at once sexual, ancient, and expressive forms. The scope of the investigation has pushed Evans into a career that encompasses performance, sculpture, painting, drawing, and sound elements. But recently, an installation with a new and more difficult narrative has occupied Evans. Having made a conscious decision to explore distinctly American iconography and history, associations of violence and distress have surfaced. The phoenix has become a turkey.
For Evans, this new narrative is uncomfortable. It alludes to a fictional, violent crime scene, a possible rape victim, a decapitation, and all this aboard a drifting raft of debris. There are cast sculptures of ravaged but surreal human forms, insinuations of disenfranchised, desperate, or dangerous people. In stark contrast, there are also large paintings that glow with nocturnal pensiveness and works on paper humming with hallucinogenic mashups, motifs straight from vintage American Regionalism. The following is a conversation we had in anticipation of her upcoming residency in Brooklyn.
Mary Jones: We’ve been discussing the recent Grant Wood show, and the implications of violence submerged in those images, especially now that we all know how unhappy and repressed he was. Do you see a connection?
Nancy Evans: Everyone mentions American Gothic in my studio, and I’ve been following the critical response to the Whitney show. What stands out to me about Grant Wood was his estrangement as a gay man, struggling with the false myths of a peaceful American society. As it turns out, my father was from Cedar Rapids, where Grant Wood made his home. He talked about it a lot. I grew up in central California, in Fresno, when it was still quite rural. The Central Valley was like an inland ocean of fertile sediment at that time.
MJ: How did your new narrative evolve?
NE: The story imaginatively evolved as I considered the buried narratives of the American heartland. It’s kind of oblique, but it’s about the violence possible when people are isolated from one another, and where there’s a lot of drug use. I made a sculpture that looked like a distraught, scrawny woman, and I began to think of her as a rape victim. Something traumatic and violent had happened to her, had formed her. Violence has been increasingly in the air these last years, and that’s part of my content. It’s important for me to emphasize that the violence of the narrative is not something that I’ve personally experienced, it’s a meta-image, like cinematography.
MJ: You really trust working with your imagination, even when it takes you to unfamiliar territory. You were friends with Mike Kelley and you have said that he was a major influence. You both work with the Jungian concept of a cultural unconscious.
NE: Mike was much more analytical in his interpretation, but I believe you can get profound information from intuition and feeling. I’ve definitely abided by the idea that we have a cultural unconscious. All my early sculptures were about that. Now, I feel like I’m stretching my imagination, teasing out storytelling aspects, attributing meaning to things I find. I made a mold from a root ball, then started to think about what kind of character would have this kind of face, gnarled, with an implication of being diseased, buried, and worm eaten. Painting is much more difficult. I’m uncovering cultural imagery that’s deeply buried and vague to me. I feel like I’m straining my imagination, and sometimes I feel I’m searching for straws. I can’t preconceive them, and it’s weird what’s coming out. There was a painting at a drive-through car wash downtown, the most amazing desolate painting, and I’ve been trying to recreate that painting, going into unknown places. Trying to paint something desolate, that’s what’s on my mind.
MJ: You spend time in the California desert. I think of you wind sailing out there encountering freaks and cyclops.
NE: The desert takes you into this other place, a place where everything just falls apart, and I wanted to utilize that in my work. Out there, I find amazing twisted shapes, amazing patinas on things, out in these desolate places. There’s so much entropy out there you can’t build things up fast enough to keep them from falling apart on you. That’s the metaphor really.
I found a sign out in the desert, it said “wipe your hooves.” That says something about people, if you take away the veneer of politeness, what people can become. And visually, the twisted roots I find echo the really skinny, scrawny, leathery people that you see out there.
MJ: Because the sculpture is made from vegetation, I’ve thought of regeneration as a theme, but you disagree.
NE: “Regeneration” was more of an overriding concept when I was making iconic objects, the phoenix, the cobra, and all the the early kundalinis. But in terms of regeneration from a plant-like standpoint I’d say no, because I use dead or dying plants. Husks, and sculpture as husks. Husks are compost, as opposed to kernels or seeds which could grow.
MJ: You’ve referred to your new landscapes as reminiscent of the California Central Valley, where you grew up. That’s a real departure, I think, because your previous paintings had been allegorical abstractions, like Agnes Pelton, or Arthur Dove.
NE: I’ve been working toward more literal landscape. My new paintings are about the recent super moons. They were so large and prominent, you had to think about the moon in a much more pronounced way, it was actually a little ominous. These follow a series of paintings of voids and trees that did address aspects of higher consciousness. I feel the moons are the opposite of the voids, and the trees were metaphors for the body, the exposed part, the roots part, and the capacity for reflection. I’ve gone further into nature and landscape, there aren’t any body references in this new work. My latest influence is Charles Burchfield. He had such a positive view of nature, the vibrancy of nature being almost hallucinatory. With Burchfield, nature is an incredible spiritualized force, and you can only stand in awe of it.
MJ: Is this also true for the works on paper?
NE: I think of them as very hallucinatory, even more so than the moons. Out in the rural areas there’s such high contrast. I was thinking of this as part of the explanation of why there’s latent violence, there’s over the top vividness to the environment, and access to that energy and heightened emotion.
MJ: You use an airbrush for these pieces, what do you like about it?
NE: I like that I don’t have direct contact in the painting. It’s like the process of poured painting, edges are found, not made. I spray around shapes, which determines the lines and edges, and there’s a lot of them. These are all found things around my studio–pieces of metal, cane from a chair, a mold for a rabbit, a pie tin with holes and mashed by cars beyond recognition. You can’t tell where they come from, they are completely transformed in the process and yet they refer to nostalgic elements of rural American culture, printed farmhouse wallpaper, chickens, turkeys–cheerful stuff, maybe suspiciously cheerful.
MJ: How do all these elements come together?
NE: Christopher Ford came over to see the work recently and described it really well. He suggested that the narrative is “a psychological dust bowl” and saw references to early Modernism, right after World War I — a movement formed in response to trauma, a time of tremendous anxiety and change, globalized conflict, the hollowing out of family farms, and the dust bowl migration of ruined Okies into California. He saw these elements echoed in the current anxiety over identity, climate change, and mass migration. My drawings function as representations of the forced idealization of American mythology, and the paintings and sculpture as the ominous reality. It’s all coming together, and it’s scary.
Nancy Evans, Two Coats of Paint Artist-in-Residence, September 30 through October 6, 2018. Two Coats of Paint, 55 Washington Street #454, Brooklyn, NY.
Please join us for an Open Studio featuring Evans’ work, Thursday, October 4, 6–9 pm, in conjunction with DUMBO First Thursday.
About the artist:
“I was born and raised in the central valley of California, an area known for agriculture, and I went from rural fig orchards to San Francisco Bay to study sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley at the height of the VietNam war protest movement. Given the turbulence of the time, I sought dramatic forms of art making, and under the influence of the performances presented at the Berkeley Art Museum and Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco I produced several built environments and performances.” Evans worked with artist run spaces, including in San Francisco 80 Langton St and La Mamelle, and in Oakland, Target. In 1980, drawn to the active performance scene described by High Performance Magazine, she moved to LA to participate in the Public Spirit Performance festival at LACE and relocated to Hollywood the year after. She received an NEA and Rockefeller Foundation Grant for her collaborative work in performance before engaging, in 1992, with a Los Angeles gallery to show her more solitary paintings.
Since the mid 1990’s Evans exhibited paintings at Sue Spaid Fine Art in LA and Fawbush Gallery in NY. In Los Angles she has shown with PØST, CardwellJimmerson, and introduced sound and sculpture in her exhibition at Dangerous Curve. Her most recent show, 2016 survey of her work at Jason Vass gallery was curated by critic, curator, and writer Michael Duncan and reviewed in the LATimes and other publications.
Evans has had work in numerous group shows, including “LA Post Cool” at the San Jose Museum of Art, “Facing West/Looking East” at the Oceanside Museum of Art, and “An Active Life” at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, OH.
About the Author: NYC artist Mary Jones is represented by High Noon Gallery. She is a Senior Critic at RISD and an instructor at the School of Visual Arts.