@STEPHEN_W._EVANS | WWW.STEPHEN-W-EVANS.COM | BIRMINGHAM, AL | PAINTING
You need to digest the things you’ve seen, experienced, and felt a certain way about, one way or another. Painting, for me, is the best way to do that.
Stephen W. Evans was born and raised in the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania, where he received a BFA in painting and drawing from the University of the Arts in 2010. In 2017, Stephen received his MFA in painting and drawing from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, Lauren Frances Evans, and their three-year-old daughter, Agnes. Stephen is a full-time preparator and art handler for the Birmingham Museum of Art, and is an adjunct professor at Samford University, teaching art appreciation. More about Stephen and his work can be found at stephen-w-evans.com.
Themes that run throughout the work are fear, faith, doubt, and death. Most of the works come from my own personal experiences as they are intertwined with bits and pieces of culture (e.g. film, literature, paintings, etc.), and take a somewhat subliminal approach in their picturing. Things I ask myself are who am I, where have I come from, what am I doing with this brush in my hand, what am I afraid of, what was that feeling, what was that place and is it more real to me now that I have painted it? These questions tend to permeate throughout my work in general, and stand to resemble ways in which I feel I have experienced both life and death as a unified and encapsulated thing.
Shadow Man - oil on wood panel - 2018
The silhouetted man in a hat is a recurring character throughout many of your recent paintings. What more can you tell us about this narrative?
The silhouetted figure, or, the Shadow Man, as I have come to call him, is a mixed bag of sorts. Also, I suppose that I should preface my answer to this question by stating that I believe painting to be an act very much akin to exorcism in many ways. Part of the development, or manifestation, if you will, of this character, was through the acknowledgement of the “Shadow Theory,” to borrow from Jung (the theory that there is a dark subconscious side to all personalities that are instinctive and irrational), or “The Dark Half,” to borrow from Stephen King, that resides in us all. This said, I feel that the work itself and my subconscious are way ahead of me with respect to what is happening in the production of the work, as well as what sorts of things may crop up. In the act of painting, I feel that I am exorcising some of the Dark Half each time, sometimes more directly than others: my fears, my anxieties, my paranoias. Sometimes the Shadow Man is a stand in for me, and sometimes not. He really only appears or is used when it seems right thematically, or is working within the piece compositionally.
Fork in the Road - acrylic on wood panel - 2019
You depict a very strong, though stylized, sense of place. What informs these locations?
For the most part, all of my spaces are invented, though sometimes they come from dreams I had as a child, and I do reference other people’s paintings quite a lot when trying to find one thing or another that I feel the painting needs (i.e. a lighting situation, a form or two, or a compositional situation). I feel that paintings are objects out in the world just like rocks and trees, and are a wellspring of source material. You need to digest the things you’ve seen, experienced, and felt a certain way about, one way or another. Painting, for me, is the best way to do that. In addition, since having a child, children's book illustration has become a huge influence on my work and thought process, mostly from books from the mid to late twentieth-century. I was just so taken aback by all the innovative solutions I was seeing with regards to picture-making in these children’s books, in a way I hadn’t and don’t always see amongst fine art painters. However, a lot of times I am just sitting down to paint without much of an idea as to what is about to happen, flipping through painting books, or even children’s books. Other times I might sit down with a plan and something totally different will jump out at me, so I go with it. But nature, and the invented landscape, is something that I have become somewhat dedicated to. It’s easy for me to say now that landscape painting has always been my first love, and all of my favorite artists for the most part fall under this genre (Lois Dodd, John Dilg, Andrew Wyeth, Philip Guston, Charles Burchfiled, Alex Katz, Marsden Hartly, Milton Avery, to name a few); but I feel like I am highly indebted to the German romanticists, without whom I wouldn't have the American landscape painters I so dearly cherish today (namely Wyeth). I grew up down the road from Andrew Wyeth, and I have spent a lot of time with his work in person, years in fact. I feel a tremendous kinship with him, not just being from a similar landscape and home place, but because of the subject matter, and all the death that is in his work. Wyeth understands what it means to paint the land, namely that one day you will irrevocably become a part of it.
Sun, Fog, and Shadow - oil on canvas - 2019
Your work seems to shift back and forth between very flat and deep pictorial space. Can you talk about your conceptual use of depth?
I feel that in my work I am creating a world, and as such, I am interested in the totality of that world in all its dimensions. And that means working, somewhat pragmatically, with different modes and experiences of painting. Sometimes the work just requires something different from me, or I require something different from the work, in order to gain some insight into something, namely myself. Sometimes I just need to go at it like an action painter, working on the floor, hovering over it, with a more immediate result. Other times, I need to articulate a little more, draw a little bit more out of the thing, and get a little more clarity. Sometimes you feel like Beethoven, and sometimes you feel like Bach. Furthermore, I suppose that I also just don’t want to lose sight of painting in all its facets, what painting is, and what it can do. I feel that I am re-learning to paint every time I sit down to make a painting.
Night Dog - milk paint, charcoal, and wood ruler on found drop cloth - 2019
Can you describe the ways in which your embrace or challenge the traditions of painting?
I haven’t always made the kind of work that I make now. In fact, I got into grad school making minimal abstract work, and I barely painted the entire three years I was there. Instead, I spent most of my time enrolling in as many film and philosophy classes as I could. I was making films and studying philosophy (Heidegger mostly), and was simply terrified to paint. I was at a loss as to how I was going to stuff all my philosophical, existential, and cinematic narrative into a minimal painting. Most of this dilemma was rooted in this naive idea I had at the time that formalism was the only way forward for painting, and that working in representation was taking too many steps backward in the wrong direction. I wanted to push the envelope with all these formal, tongue and cheek tricks, that just screamed “you see what I did there?” But what I learned was that I wasn’t actually engaging in painting in a way that would take me or painting anywhere. I was looking at painting in an analytical way, from the outside in, and not the other way around. I was trying to put a square peg in a round hole. It wasn’t until I realized, with the help of my cohort and my mentors in grad school, that I didn’t have to hold on to this mode of working any longer. I realized where my interests lie, and it was the Twilight Zone, Stephen King, early Spielberg films, and Martin Heidegger. I discovered what my own visual grammar could look like, and this is what brought me to the work I do now. I realized that I was a painter by choice, and that to be an artist could take so many different forms; but I was deciding to be a painter, and it had become a thematic choice to take on this roll. I decided it was more of a challenge to embrace painting and the role of “the painter” in a historical sense, to embrace the frame and see what I could do inside of it, and I see a lot of people doing that these days which I am grateful for. (For example, some of the most exciting painting I’ve seen these days is coming from Jordan Kasey, Giordanne Salley, Dana Schutz, and Katherine Bradford.) I should be clear in saying that I am not calling for some kind of pre-raphaelite conservative academic painting revival, but just an acknowledgement of one’s own interests, and where that might take them. In other words, I feel that the embrace is the challenge, and the challenge is the embrace.
Island - milk paint and charcoal on found drop cloth - 2019
How would you describe the mood that is conveyed through your recent drop cloth pieces?
With the drop cloth pieces, I was thinking about early American textiles, like quilts, their patterns, and all the socio-political/emotional baggage that comes with those things. I was also just really drawn to the dynamic quality of the patterns and symbols, and how I could associate with them, however pessimistically, in a formal way, as well as to appropriate them as an artist and as an American. It was also a way for me to engage my drawing practice directly with the paintings, in a more bodily, visceral way. The drawing is clunky, with a certain kind of visual speed present, and is created pretty intuitively. The drop cloth is a material, as a house painter, that became attractive to me for a number of reasons. One was the history of accidental painting that was recorded on/within them (I love working with things that already exist in the world, and have worked with found objects in the past), and the association with work that came with it. Second was the non-precious, non-art quality of the material, that, in some cases, provided me with a lot of the painting already done prior to my acquiring them, as they were used by others and not myself. A lot of my work deals with fear, and in some cases, it’s the fear of painting itself. So wherever I have the chance to skirt around some traditional ways or modes of working that comport a kind of high-art-angst, I try to work with that.