Your first reaction to the current exhibit at the Kenai Peninsula College Art Gallery, "Eighteen New Abstract Canvases by Jim Evenson," might be to wonder just what the heck is going on. The art's abstract, all right. You might well conclude that it's bereft of any connection to reality.
If that's what you decide, well done. You got the point.
The exhibit is Evenson's third at KPC's art gallery. It features 18 stunning new paintings that are anything but subtle.
The very point of Evenson's work, in this case, is to avoid any presentation or representation of familiar reality. He wanted to "avoid images that suggested objects, people, animals or anything from the real world," as he wrote in his artist's statement for the exhibit. And he's succeeded, tremendously. The works are chaotic but intentional, beautifully random but also fervently expressive. They fulfill Evenson's intentions powerfully.
Evenson was born and raised in Chicago. He studied art education, printmaking and painting, mostly in Iowa, although he also studied for a year at the University of Spain. Evenson's no mediocre jack of all trades: he's a veritable master of several. The talented Nikiski artist taught and coached in Kenai for 25 years and worked for 43 years as a commercial fisher.
Evenson has displayed his work in Kenai, Anchorage and Iowa. The current exhibit runs through Nov. 20.
It doesn't take a particularly keen eye to see Evenson's purpose at work in each painting. However, it does take patience. A quick, thoughtless glance at a piece is a theft the errant viewer commits against himself.
Start by standing in the middle of the room. Try to examine the exhibit as a whole, rather than focusing on the paintings individually.
"Shake It and Break It"
It's incredible. It's a whirring, moving amalgamation of emotions that defy description in any way but that in which they are presented on the canvases. It's too much to absorb in a single visual sweep of the gallery.
This approach is, among other things, a way of viewing the art in the same way in which Evenson created it. He said he didn't paint one piece at a time, but rather spent 2 1/2 months creating the entire exhibit. He worked on the pieces together, moving from one to another in the large studio in his home. Eventually, he said, each painting "took off in a different direction."
Think about that. He didn't say, "I eventually decided on a different direction for each painting." The direction emerged as he worked. It made itself apparent. That's revelation; that's the subconscious at work.
That's a big part of what abstract art is about. It doesn't evoke images or feelings the way other kinds of art do. Paintings of landscapes or other familiar scenes are essentially metaphors. Viewers of these works sense their meaning by understanding a comparison: a barn for bucolic simplicity, a placid lake for serenity.
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Abstract art is different. It's a unique opportunity, an expression for that which, save for instrumental music, lacks any other medium for tangible expression, the subconscious.
The subconscious. It's that mysterious world behind the eyes, and it can't reveal itself through words or recognizable images. Those aren't the things it's made of. It's a realm of impulses and barely comprehensible, if even perceptible, emotions and thoughts.
Abstract art transcends the limitations of the printed word, of speech, of most contemporary music. By all logic, it should be impossible to create. Human beings live, function and communicate in the immediate world of tangible, visual, breathable reality, generally out of touch with their deepest innate impulses and thoughts. Yet there it is, on the canvas: a real expression of something that exists in a reality that is anything but familiar.
Evenson's achievement demonstrates this point extremely well. He apparently is able to lose himself in the work, thereby accessing a rare portal to the subconscious, which guides his brush.
"So Long Suzie"
What does he think about when he paints?
"Just the painting," he said.
The individual paintings reveal, some in ways that are impossible to ignore, the intricate complexities of Evenson's subconscious.
Take, for example, "GG Zip," the second piece in the exhibit. (Evenson wrote in his statement that he chose names for the works after he'd painted them, and that his titles are "a sort of poetic reaction to them on a subconscious level." Many are named for songs, he wrote, "because I think the paintings are very much like jazz instrumental music. Neither depends upon words or realistic images for its meaning.")
The background on "GG Zip" is serene and calm, but the contorted blue shape that writhes its way across the yellow and light orange field reveals something in motion on an otherwise dormant plain. The painting is full of action and motion, but after a long look that motion seems dead. The painting is very much alive and painfully relevant, but its action, the action of the blue shape, seems somehow like that of something that's already happened a long time ago. It has the appearance of a screaming fossil, an open jaw locked in ancient sand.
Two other paintings in the exhibit bear a resemblance to "GG Zip." "Wet Dog Blues" is darker, both in appearance and mood. "Taylor's Safari" is a bigger variation on the themes the three share.
"My Old Flame" also looks a lot like these three paintings, but it's too personal, too inviting, to merit inclusion in their category. It's a bulbous shape that scrolls down over this canvas, across a similarly quiet background. It's more inviting, more approachable, than the other three.
Evenson wrote in his statement that although the paintings are intentionally abstract and devoid of recognizable images, "this doesn't mean that you shouldn't find images in them yourself." Some paintings lend themselves to this adventure liberally.
"Aztec" is a case in point. Try to see the thin orange lines as the edges of moving planes. You might recall the way glass microscope slide covers looked as they slid over filmy or inky samples in science class. You may find that the painting looks like a tumbling structure, a body of separate pieces joined in rapid, eruptive motion. You also might see something else entirely.
"Hot" and "Sweet Sue" are among the most passionate works on display. They're also very similar. "Sweet Sue," though, flows without interruption, whereas the primary shapes in "Hot" seem confined, pinned or clamped down by the linear gray objects on either side of them.
"Sweet Sue" has a few box-like shapes, but they lie around the outside edges of the painting. These gold shapes form a border for the incredibly vibrant shape that flows unrestrained in the painting.
Look at "Sweet Sue" from a distance first. Then approach it, slowly, fixing your eyes on the middle of the top right shape and the top and middle of the lower shape. You can see where Evenson's used a wide brush to create a striking illusion of depth and curves. The brushstrokes are indeed shapes all their own, terminating in flowing red streaks.
"Green" embodies Evenson's purpose perfectly, while also demonstrating his creativity and ability as a painter. The work, you may find, conjures up no familiar emotions at all; its curved rectangular green planes seem to spin haphazardly around the center of the pink background.
Of course, it's all a matter of opinion. Interpretation is entirely subjective. But Evenson said each viewer of a painting can find its meaning on his or her own terms. He said he is personally more concerned with avoiding displeasing aesthetic problems than with finding any meaning in his abstract creations.
Evenson's paintings are an amazing example of how artistic control can bring to a canvas vivid images of the innate, expressive chaos of the mind. They're an incredible display of how the subconscious can -- through the right artist, the proper human medium and, in this case, the amply qualified Jim Evenson -- express a piece of itself.
The exhibit runs through Nov. 10. The gallery is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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