Paul Evans and the power of the visual narrative
The poetry publishers Longbarrow Press are known for their multimedia approach to poetry. The artist Paul Evans has not only been a notable contributor to their books, but also been involved in many challenging projects across the UK. That he should be in demand is not surprising because Paul’s considered work contains some powerful narratives. I wanted to understand how he is able to do this.
I noticed on your website that you say a painting moves in the mind and that your aim is to develop this concept and engage the viewer in your work. How do you do this?
Painting is a good place to start, because painting is a primal form of activity in my opinion. This concept of mental movement, allied to movement of the body, is also relevant to many other aspects of my practise. If we are referring specifically to painting, to this particular way of working, then one of the things that interests me most is what happens when someone comes into visual contact with a canvas and begins to move around – physically, in space – to grasp different surface qualities; you can see a sort of ‘reverse apprehension’ taking place, during which the viewer follows the route of creation through the painting’s surface. There is something very special that occurs between a viewer and a painting. Painting is a way of creating something that’s both physical, in the present, and a record of a series of past events: a series of passing emotions and textures of thinking. Joan Mitchell, the abstract painter, referred to this as ‘liquid thinking’, which is a nice way of looking at it.
There’s also something quite mysterious about painting, something that doesn’t ever really go away, not even in representational painting. The way that an image or emotional charge is constructed using paint. James Elkins describes this rather well in What Painting Is when he calls it a kind of ‘alchemy’: you’re making something using ‘prima materia’, base matter, and converting it into something beautiful. It’s that primacy of painting that really interests me. When people ‘get’ that in my painting I like it because it’s a simple relationship with my work – something direct. Something is working on a pre-linguistic level, which makes it hard to explain but, perversely, hard to not talk about. When I talk to people about my paintings it’s interesting to observe that we’re having a conversation about this ‘thing’ and we’re both struggling to find words, but there’s something in the physical engagement that’s making a direct connection between the viewer, the painting, and myself. There’s something really quite special about that.
It’s interesting you’re talking about trying to explain your paintings. There’s something in literature called ‘the death of the author’ which is when you’ve finished your work you’re handing it over to someone else who starts reading it, and they put their own interpretation on it. When you find there’s a difference between your internal narrative with your work and how someone else interprets it, does this concern you?
It doesn’t really worry me that they’re not necessarily seeing it the way I do. Most of my interpretation of what I do in painting is formalistic. Has it got some kind of symmetry or balance? Or does it carry a sense of composition, do the textures align themselves or is there a poetic repetition somewhere on the surface? Are some parts of the painting speaking to others? Is there a dialogue going on?
In terms of shapes and textures and patterns on a surface, that’s the sort of thing that will excite me, but often people will come along and see things in them: images sometimes. When I worked on our collaboration ‘Cells’ with the poet Chris Jones, it was all about providing Chris with some abstract colours and fairly loose quasi-forms that had settled on a sheet of paper. These were quite strong and emotive colour juxtapositions, and in some ways that was all they were, but Chris saw images in them. What was remarkable to observe during the making of our initial series of seven, was the growth of a kind of post-apocalyptic narrative that developed and evolved, quite unconsciously, through the seven haiku that Chris wrote to accompany the paintings.
I was talking to someone the other day about the idea that a finished painting is a static thing, that it’s almost dead and that the viewer really does bring it to life. So surely this must make a painting a participatory object that emerges from a participatory relationship? But it’s often not seen that way because ‘painting’ has got something of the reek of the museum hanging over it.
Did you find that Chris’s haiku made you think differently about your work?
I really enjoyed reviewing the paintings on the basis of what Chris had written. It was an intensely pleasurable experience to read the words and see the change that had taken place in these notionally static, notionally dumb, objects. That was great and that element of enjoyment was very important to me.
You work in more than one medium, although you’re primarily a painter.
I’m a painter, almost by default, but I also work on animations and installations. I’m very interested in installation in the sense of putting things together and making them act in spaces. Another collaboration with Chris Jones was at the SIA Gallery in Sheffield that took place in 2010, this installation was entitled Origin010 and consisted of a number of elements including drawings and animation, loosely connected via a series of biological themes.
There are two levels to the gallery, with one being a type of mezzanine. It was important to me to connect those two spaces, so we had one of Chris’s poems actually raised on a low, white plinth, which almost made it look like a tomb. You could see this from the mezzanine. I was pleased with the way that worked, in the sense that it connected the large central gallery space with the mezzanine floor above – because the poem was best read from above. It was actually a poem about Darwin’s daughter, who died of scarlet fever, so it looked, and acted, very much like a memorial. Working with a space like that interests me.
I did something similar at 20/21 Arts Centre in Scunthorpe where I used the walls as sites for poetic works, juxtaposed with various forms of animation, drawing and various printed objects. I measured the space up and designed it as you might design a book.
This is interesting because the conversation I had earlier with the poet Mark Goodwin and Brian Lewis (Longbarrow Press) was about the poetry and how it was arranged in space in the book and how the book formed the poetry. So you’re saying with some of your artwork, the narrative you develop is formed by the space?
Yes, the space becomes part of it. The negative space around the work is activated and energised by the elements within it. That’s one of the options that we have available as artists; since the installation form was invented, it has been possible to use moving elements within a static space as well as using notionally static elements such as painting or even drawing.
So getting back to the point of the painting ‘moving in the mind’ I do think that, when you make a painting or a drawing, you’re leaving a trace behind on the paper or canvas. The movement’s either real, or imagined, or perceived as a trace or as a relict of action. Something similar is true of installations, although the movements that are traced may well be larger in scale. Oddly enough though, when watching an animation, it’s likely that the viewer will stand absolutely still.
When I think about ‘categories’ of art, I wonder about the validity of these notional boundaries between painting and live art or performance… because painting always demands a degree of performance in its construction.
Really even with a painting, what you’re saying it isn’t a flat dead thing because you have to imagine the way the artist has worked on it.
Yes, and there’s another concept of finished, which is quite interesting and often discussed: when there’s a painting sitting on the floor or on an easel that isn’t finished, especially an abstract and fluid painting, when we’re deciding if it’s finished or not. Really – when is it finished? A painting never really is, but there’s probably a point at which it needs to be shown to people…
This is again reflecting what Mark said about a finished poem and that it can always be reworked. So when do you know a painting is ready to be shown to viewers?
Actually, I don’t really like the word ‘finished’, because there’s something dead in the concept that is contained within that word. Quite often I’ll get a painting back from the gallery and repaint it to continue its life. There’s a nice image from Haruki Murakami’s novel A Wild Sheep Chase where he’s describing a clock in an abandoned house and he’s talking about how the clock has stopped some time ago. He gets the clock going again and time starts again for that clock. I think that’s interesting, because when you finish a painting time stops for that painting, but when you bring it back into the studio the clock starts again. This relationship with time is worth considering, it’s why I like to think of painting as a time-based medium.
How do you find working with other people when you having to produce work together?
It varies enormously depending on the person I’m working with. It’s very rarely ‘difficult’, but it’s always interesting. I think there is a complex issue about ‘other’ people and to what extent that we are individuals anyway. In a way when you’re working with someone else you’re only expressing a certain aspect or element of yourself – one that may even be slightly unfamiliar – and they’re also expressing a certain, perhaps minor, aspect or element of themselves. So you might imagine a Venn diagram and the zone of convergence in which your experiences overlap, and this might actually be quite small or shallow, but it still feels like a shared experience and quite a natural thing to do for me – even though I’m not a greatly sociable person. It’s always a learning process, which is great. I really like the unexpected, those frissons of delight when something works out unexpectedly.
I work with other artistic practitioners but up until now I have tended to work less with other visual artists, although I am currently developing a collaboration with the Leeds based artist Hondartza Fraga.
A lot of my collaborative work is with academics and very often what I’m doing is taking place within these narrowly overlapping spheres of experience. I’ve often found that they’re very busy people, so there’s only a little time that you actually get to spend with them. It’s a privilege, to be honest, so the thing to do is to try and carry away as much enthusiasm from the contact as possible.
I’m very interested in enthusiasm and curiosity: two power sources that we can use to make good things. Sometimes the difficulty with working with academics is that you imagine a collaborative process that will be an intense, immersive, situation where you’ll be working together for extended periods of time, but it’s not like that. It’s more like you’re picking up a ball of clay and handing it to them to see what they might make of it, moulding it into shape yourself, and then passing it on to the audience who will then make something else out of it.
Talking about two different fields. You’re in the art field, which is very much more intuition based, whereas the academics are in a world where they have to constantly be careful about how they’re expressing something because it needs to be backed up by research or other information. So how do you work with the two fields?
I think that what I bring to the table is the opportunity for them to see things clearly or differently, because they’re often living in a complex world of professional interrelationships, and working under great competitive pressure to get their research out there. Sometimes their research is massively interconnected with a whole set of other research agendas led by institutional policies. What I can do is go in there and say ‘That’s really interesting, but this – this here – is amazing!’
I worked on an installation with the poets Matthew Clegg and Chris Jones for the new cancer genetics facility at Cardiff University medical school a couple of years ago. We got to meet quite a few of the researchers that were working in this field. We went into their labs and asked them what they did. They told us the practical part of their work would be really boring to us, because they were mainly number crunching or working through epic sample collections to get the data that they needed. One in particular, I remember, was talking about a chemical pathway between what’s exterior to the cell and what’s absorbed by the cell wall. He was using a diagram to point out all these interconnected pathways and chains of enzymes and organelles in the cell and how they operate in a certain way. He told me all the things they knew about – and the things they didn’t know about – all of which I thought were incredible… because what he was describing are things that are really fundamental to existence and invisibly tiny. I thought it was amazing. I think that when it comes to working with academics and working in university public engagement situations I don’t lack enthusiasm! That’s why I enjoy working with other people. I find out new things all the time.
What came out of the conversation you had about the pathways and enzymes in the cell?
I made some watercolour paintings that were essentially abstract, but alluded to a lot of the imagery I had seen in the various labs. I wanted to keep the process fairly open so that the work was open to the viewer’s interpretation, but besides that there was a specific aesthetic at play. The colours worked well together, the constituent elements were ‘composed’. Then Chris wrote some haiku to accompany them. The other thing that was coming out of our conversations were a lot of interesting phrases: I really like the phrase ‘regions of interest’, for example, which is used to define a specific organ or part of an organ for medical imagery. Matt wrote a really beautiful poem as a letter to a cell researcher. All of the work, both poetry and paintings, was installed in juxtaposition in a cloud-like grid at the entrance to the facility.
What sort of feedback did you get from them?
While I was installing it quite a few people came up to me and said ‘That’s really beautiful’. I think that the beauty was already there, to be honest, we just made it visible (or, to a degree, legible). But I’ll have to add that there’s something very scary about working with cancer genetics, particularly as my dad died of cancer when I was eight.
There’s a responsibility when you’re producing the work.
I think that’s one of the reasons I prefer the words to be shaped by poets because you can trust them to be sensitive to the subject matter.
You’ve worked with poets quite a bit. You’ve even done the cover art for The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley. How did this come about?
This was part of a project that is now in its second phase. Brian Lewis suggested Peter Riley’s poem The Ascent of Kinder Scout for the ‘Seven Wonders’ and I was really delighted by the way that the poems and paintings (actually two paintings in this case) worked together. I began working with Brian and Longbarrow Press on the first phase of the ‘Seven Wonders’ project in 2010. I made seven paintings of landscape features in the Peak District. These were inspired by a poem by Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, called De Mirabilibus Pecci – Being the Wonders of the Peak in Darby-shire. He wrote about seven landscape features or sights of wonder. I got really interested in this and decided to resurrect the notion. I also love the fact that Daniel Defoe took issue with it and called them the ‘Wonderless Wonders’.
We have changed the list a little. We kept some of Thomas Hobbes’ original ‘Wonders’ and then changed the list a bit to suit modern sensibilities.
I worked with a number of writers who wrote poems to go with the paintings, the idea is that the poems act as really long titles to the paintings. You can have a title that’s a couple of words or you can have a painting that’s ‘untitled’, which says nothing much. But if you put a lot of words into the title then the viewer might, potentially, see the painting (or read the painting) in a completely different way. What was really nice about it was that the poets were bringing out all sorts of cultural references and personal reflections about these places that were far more than I could express as a painter.
The other thing is that I’ve always had a problem with landscape painting in that I go out to the landscape and look around at the 360 degree panorama, I feel the wind on my face and the ground under my feet and I can’t help but notice a severe reduction in content, even with a visually intense Turner, into the limited, narrowly framed space of a painting. But what I realised when I began making these paintings was that I didn’t need to think about it like that, I could just see it as an equivalent. Also the framing can be interesting in itself, because what you decide to put within the limits of your frame is actually very important and what the poets are choosing to place within the limits of their poem … and then how they marry together, relate, or even create a kind of chemical (alchemical) heat or friction between each other; how those frames dissolve to a degree.
I’m very interested in ‘poetics’ in the Aristotelian sense: where you’re bringing two forms together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Where do you see your work going? Do you have a real yearning to do something or is there more a sense of constant exploration?
Exploration is good. What I like is having time to explore, discover and develop ideas that have got some legs. What I’m currently working on is a project based around a book by Armand Marie Leroi called The Lagoon. It’s about how Aristotle invented biology. I’m reading it and making sketches as I go along and these will go towards an interpretation of that book in drawings and, possibly, paint. I’m very interested in the relationship between humans and other animals. What’s interesting in The Lagoon is that we see this relationship from a borderline historical context. At 2500 years ago there is a boundary between pre-history and history: and part of this boundary is what Aristotle thought about animals. He classified humans as animals, which Plato didn’t, and he had the most amazing insights, even if he did get a lot wrong. I’m really interested in Aristotle’s ideas about the soul. One of the chapter titles from The Lagoon is ‘The Soul of the Cuttlefish’ so I’ve been working on some cuttlefish drawings, drawing cuttlefish with souls. Did you know that the cuttlefish has one of the most sophisticated communication systems in the animal kingdom? They communicate with their skin, using colours, textures and patterns… the interrogation of that book is giving me plenty to think about and work on right now.