Leya Evelyn: It’s Not What You Think
by Jane Affleck
A member of Halifax’s art community since she relocated from New York more than 30 years ago, Leya Evelyn has had a busy season, with an exhibition in Ottawa followed by this one at the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery. In Halifax, she presented two distinct bodies of work, site-specific to each of the gallery’s two spaces. Both are from the family tree of abstraction, but are distant cousins with differing aesthetics and scales.
In the gallery’s main space are several large-scale oil paintings with subtle, muted colours: planes of buttercream and lightly toasted marshmallow are partitioned by lines and marks in other hues, such as ultramarine, aqua, emerald, forest and dusty purple. These solemn, calming works command the viewer to spend time looking, from afar and up close. The latter — from a standpoint within sniffing distance of the textured surfaces — rewards the viewer with sightings of fabric swatches beneath the palimpsest application of paints.
Evelyn’s skill in layering these materials creates realms beyond the textured surfaces. In several paintings, swarms of scribbled brushwork hover above fields or seascapes of ochre-tinted cream, sometimes appearing to be reflected there and to exist on a plane other than the painting’s. Similarly, the colours and forms in When, No. 2 push and pull, establishing spaces: a plane of milky lemon melts into cream at a sepia-toned horizon — perhaps a glowing sun setting (or rising) behind a bank of fog over a bridge. This painting in particular evokes the misty tumult of J.M.W. Turner’s later paintings, such as Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), produced after he had relinquished objectivity to better focus on the essential qualities and capabilities of paint: colour and texture, and the alchemy of reproducing light itself.
Evelyn’s work traces its lineage through Abstract Expressionism, though it shares few traits with “Zombie Formalism,” a flash-in-the-pan and lifeless revival of Clement Greenberg’s aesthetic.1 Her inclusion of collaged fabric countermands the necessary purity of materials lauded by Greenberg, who stated that “[i]t is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself.”2 Regardless, the fabric swatches’ contribution isn’t entirely about their materiality but their patterns. Perhaps to this end, the artist chose to leave fragments of the patterns exposed amidst the layers of paint: squares and polka dots; amphibians; French horns; and the word “love” in peacenik-style font. This text—legible in several of the paintings—links the work to other forebears of non-figurative mid-20th-century art, from Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture to Ed Ruscha’s paintings, many of which feature a word as both subject and content. But why these machine-manufactured icons and text, in work so concerned with the painter’s hand, as evidenced in Evelyn’s multifarious mark-making? Why salamanders? Why “love”? From afar, however, the fabric swatches blend into the paintings’ colour-variegated compositions: a blushing square of red, a spherical blare of gold, a smattering of purple melding with paint of like hue.
Speaking of colour, the 15 miniature works in the smaller alcove space are bright and tangy, their impasto hues representing every colour of the rain- bow. And they’re arranged as such, in a row from red through to indigo. Can anyone fault this symbol of hope, good fortune, gay pride? Yet, this chromatic presentation somehow renders these works trite. Or perhaps it’s simply that, after the subdued and dignified larger works, the incessant cheer of these pint- sized pieces can’t help but over-stimulate. (Imagine attending a week-long meditation retreat only to be transported into the midst of commuter chaos in Tokyo’s neon-screaming Shibuya district.)
But what place does work such as Evelyn’s have in contemporary art-making: why abstract painting, why now? As W.J.T. Mitchell queries, “Can abstract art recover any of the utopian, revolutionary, and spiritually transcendent ambitions it was associated with in the early modernist era, the heroic age of Kandinsky, Malevich, and the historical avant-garde?”3 He later suggests that abstract painting has the potential to foster a collective intimacy. Perambulating Evelyn’s exhibition, I experienced a kind of intimacy with the other viewers, as with silent civil inattention.4 we gave each other space. But more deliberate was an evening of music and dance, composed and choreographed precisely to have a “dialogue” with the paintings. As Evelyn noted on her blog, during this performance there was “hardly a dry eye in the audience.”
Mitchell’s assertion that the intimacy evoked by art creates “a circle of acknowledgement and recognition” thus holds up.5 The ability of art to bring viewers together, to make them feel something, in a time that encourages us to keep a kind of ironic distance from each other, is arguably nothing short of revolutionary. The exhibition’s title, which might first be understood as a comment on the seeming inability of abstract work to signify, thus has new resonance: if it’s not what you think, then perhaps it’s what you feel, as you peer amidst those furrows of paint and glance at that stranger standing next to you.