Ephemera:
Recent Works by Rob Evans

(brochure essay from the 2004 exhibition

 

"Ephemera: Recent Works by Rob Evans"

 

at Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery,

Lebanon Valley College, Annville, PA)

By Scott Schweigert

Study for Movement, mixed media, 2004, 37 x 33 inches, private collection

In addition to addressing the significant stages of the human life cycle, Evans’ paintings often treat instances of the transitory in nature. Moth (1993), Indicator (2000), Predator (2000) and Pairing (2001) feature insects as allegories for larger concerns confronting human society: suburban sprawl, industrial pollution and the almost menacing Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Evans frequently juxtaposes the natural and the man-made.These works may be read as signals—caveats— of human encroachment on the fragile environment. In Above and Beneath (2004), a work in mixed media, Evans satisfies the childlike curiosity and archaeological impulse of the viewer by lifting up an intricately variegated and richly textured conglomerate rock to reveal the tiny hidden world beneath it. Evans exposes for the viewer a habitat of colorful night crawlers embedded in the rich dark soil. The limited purview of this revealed microcosm is balanced by the twilight horizon framed on both sides by bare trees above the large rock. Evans has structured the composition into two zones: the insular and the expansive, an arrangement that underscores the delicate balance that pertains in both. The exactitude of Evans’ technique renders each blade of grass, each pebble and each creature with a high degree of naturalism. Another work, Forsythia (2001), captures with skillful precision the short-lived radiant blossoms emerging from the untamed branches of early spring. Both paintings evoke Albrecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf (c. 1503, Albertina, Vienna) and reveal an artist whose capacity for description is virtually limitless.


Study for Movement (2004), a dream-like secular triptych altarpiece, illuminates the ephemeral in three related panels. The central panel pictures the mechanical passage of time symbolized by the dramatic, oblique man-made antique grandfather clock face. In the left wing of the triptych, Evans offers an allegory of nature’s life cycle represented by the slow but indefatigable desire of the horseshoe crab to perpetuate the species through its mid-summer nocturnal spawning ritual on the beach. The perpetuation of the species is translated into the human realm in the right wing where the progression from infant to child to adult plays out with a family grouping nestled in a quiet bed. Evans has adopted for contemporary use the traditional altarpiece which has its roots in the early renaissance. Here, however, the artist has fashioned the altar into an icon of the cycle of life rather than one of eternal salvation.

Piñata (2004) demonstrates, perhaps more clearly than any other work in the current exhibition, the notion of the ephemeral. The painting depicts the artist’s son positioned in the lower third of the composition cast against a dramatic cloud-filled sky framed by a soaring tree. The boy is pictured in the victorious moment immediately following the rupture of the candy-filled container. Piñatas are by their very nature ephemeral. They need to be destroyed in order to reach their full potential as bearers of sweet treats and toys at children’s birthday parties. Their colorful shells are disregarded in favor of the highly prized goodies they contain. The painting’s meaning, however, reaches beyond the straightforward narrative of a boy getting the better of a decorated paper candy vessel. The image of the blonde-haired youngster embodies a particular moment in time and at once conveys both youthfulness and joy. The boy’s pensive gaze meets the viewer’s; he awaits approval, unsure of himself and his own maturity. The figure represents a critical stage in his, and by extension, our development and evokes the collective memory of innocence inside each of us.

In modern usage, the word ephemera has a multiplicity of meanings. It can be used to describe objects that are transitory, fleeting or disposable. It can also mean, apropos to the current exhibition, an insect that lives for only one day.

For Rob Evans (b. 1959), the ephemeral may represent a nearly forgotten moment -- a seemingly insignificant event -- exhumed from his memory and captured in charcoal or paint. Likewise, Evans’ notion of ephemera may mean a natural specimen caught in a delicate stage of development; a critical moment within a broader narrative; or an overlooked object, cast aside, only to be reexamined at some later time. Evans has been dealing with the ephemeral  in his paintings and drawings for more than a decade and the current assemblage of works speak to the artist’s exploration of change: life and death, growth and decay and worlds both temporal and enduring.

The subjects Evans selects are akin to those favored by seventeenth-century Dutch painters: descriptive landscapes, vanitas images (allegorical reminders of the brevity of life), and genre scenes. Regarded by some contemporary critics and viewers as merely meticulously rendered snapshots of life’s banalities—reading a letter, mending a shirt or quietly engaging in one’s daily chores—the canvases of the Dutch golden age require a considerably deeper level of engagement and often address allegorical and universal themes. Evans too demands a more substantial commitment from his viewers. He has a knack for monumentalizing for the ages what at first glance appears utterly ordinary. One of the primary achievements of his work is that it gives permanence to the impermanent and invites us to find beauty in the commonplace. The solidity and monumentality of forms captured in Evans’ paintings and mixed media works belie the fleeting or ephemeral subjects that he so often treats. There is nothing ethereal or ephemeral about his figures and objects. Without a doubt, they exist in our world and have real mass and volume. Like the works of the Dutch old masters, Evans’ paintings are not merely reflexive snapshots of the familiar, but are carefully calculated, often highly sophisticated, compositions which also happen to be extraordinarily unordinary in their ability to resonate long after viewing.

Piñata (2004) demonstrates, perhaps more clearly than any other work in the current exhibition, the notion of the ephemeral. The painting depicts the artist’s son positioned in the lower third of the composition cast against a dramatic cloud-filled sky framed by a soaring tree. The boy is pictured in the victorious moment immediately following the rupture of the candy-filled container. Piñatas are by their very nature ephemeral. They need to be destroyed in order to reach their full potential as bearers of sweet treats and toys at children’s birthday parties. Their colorful shells are disregarded in favor of the highly prized goodies they contain. The painting’s meaning, however, reaches beyond the straightforward narrative of a boy getting the better of a decorated paper candy vessel. The image of the blonde-haired youngster embodies a particular moment in time and at once conveys both youthfulness and joy. The boy’s pensive gaze meets the viewer’s; he awaits approval, unsure of himself and his own maturity. The figure represents a critical stage in his, and by extension, our development and evokes the collective memory of innocence inside each of us.

Piñata (2004) demonstrates, perhaps more clearly than any other work in the current exhibition, the notion of the ephemeral. The painting depicts the artist’s son positioned in the lower third of the composition cast against a dramatic cloud-filled sky framed by a soaring tree. The boy is pictured in the victorious moment immediately following the rupture of the candy-filled container. Piñatas are by their very nature ephemeral. They need to be destroyed in order to reach their full potential as bearers of sweet treats and toys at children’s birthday parties. Their colorful shells are disregarded in favor of the highly prized goodies they contain. The painting’s meaning, however, reaches beyond the straightforward narrative of a boy getting the better of a decorated paper candy vessel. The image of the blonde-haired youngster embodies a particular moment in time and at once conveys both youthfulness and joy. The boy’s pensive gaze meets the viewer’s; he awaits approval, unsure of himself and his own maturity. The figure represents a critical stage in his, and by extension, our development and evokes the collective memory of innocence inside each of us.

Fittingly, long after this ephemeral exhibition has been disassembled, only bits of it will remain: photographs, the brochure, reviews and the memory of the works on the wall. The paintings of Rob Evans, however, will not quickly fade away; they will linger for a while and enmesh themselves into the deepest corners of our minds, only to reemerge later in unexpected contexts. The evocative familiarity of his work will resound long after the paintings have been packed up and returned to their collectors. It is only at that time, when we have had an opportunity to fully absorb the subtle nuances of his carefully constructed narratives and the essential, more meaningful resonances of life, death and transformations, that the cycle will be completed.

 

Scott Schweigert is an American art historian and the curator of the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA. Previously he was the director of the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery at Lebanon Valley College, Annville, PA.

 

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Evans’ inquisitiveness for the natural world, a trait he traces back to his own childhood spent seeking out fascinating fossils and unique specimens, is evident in many of his paintings. When one visits Evans at his bucolic studio, a renovated barn floating high atop a steep hill in rural Pennsylvania, the experience is multi-sensory. Stepping through the door, one instantly encounters boxes of an endless variety of shells, rocks and butterflies that fill his shelves. These natural objects mingle with the smell of paints and clean country air. Evans’ surroundings form the foundation of his visual vocabulary and one does not find it surprising that bits of his observed world creep into his pictures. For instance, Fire and Ice (2004), a haunting image of a decapitated and decaying cardinal’s head, perched for our viewing on a craggy pedestal, expresses Evans' appetite for the biological. The placement of the disembodied head, suspended high above the expansive winter riverscape and evening sky lit by distant city lights, memorializes the creature and forces us to confront its ugliness simultaneously with the remnants of its delicate feathers and brightly colored beak. We must imagine the creature at opposite poles of its existence: its animated state and the reality of its current, deteriorating condition.

Pinata, acrylic and oil on prepared paper, 2004, 26 x 19 inches,

collection of Howard and Judy Tullman, Chicago, IL

Fire and Ice, pigment print, 2004, 23 x 19 inches, collection of the artist

© 2018 by Rob Evans