Cicada, oil on panel, 2001, 40 x 120 inches, collection of James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA
Artists of the Commonwealth: Rob Evans
(catalog essay from the 2001 traveling exhibition "Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting 1950 - 2000)
By Terrie Sultan
In his paintings, Rob Evans presents non-linear narratives that hover between hyper-realistic psychological investigations and luminist explorations of natural forces. With a precise draftsmanship and subdued color sensibility that tends toward a shadowy, cool purple-violet, he creates images that are layered with meaning and allegory. Seemingly simple landscapes and interiors become, in Evans' hands, dreamscapes that look familiar but that emanate a sense of isolation and aloneness that belies their roots in traditional representation.
Evans was born in Boston in 1959 and raised in Kensington, Maryland. He attended Syracuse University in upstate New York, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1981. During his university years, he spent summers in rural Pennsylvania, moving to Wrightsville permanently in the spring of 1982. What attracted him most to the area was the fact that he could live "on the border between urban sprawl and the rural landscape." Surrounded mostly by flora and fauna, he sees on his horizon a landscape interrupted by the odd, isolated private home, and he hears the particular kind of silence one experiences only in the country. His is a lifestyle that informs every aspect of his art.
Evans' summer sojourns in Pennsylvania introduced him to a painterly tradition of representation to which he responded on a visceral level. But the narrative content in his painting is decidedly his own invention. Evans has an abiding fascination with natural science and a deep concern for the environment. The collision between urban development and the impact of such encroachment on a particular way of life is vital to his work. "The lights and smokestacks one sees in the distance in my paintings are metaphors for the intrusion of man on nature," he notes.
In both form and content, Evans addresses the essential duality of contemporary human existence, creating an interplay between the natural and the man-made, between the urban and rural, between inside and outside. To achieve this luster of in-between-ness, the artist has developed a signature compositional structure that typically focuses on passages and thresholds, and a tilted perspective that places the viewer in a voyeuristic, observational stance. His work from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s is defined by absence: intricately described, unoccupied interiors bathed in an atmospheric, Hopperesque light that serves to enhance the mood of isolation; landscapes at night with only the merest indication -- dots of light or thin trails of smoke in the far distance, two garbage bags abandoned in a clearing -- that humans are nearby. For the past five years, Evans' narrative has become more emphatically constructed; what had been implied in the early works has become more deliberately woven into the content of the painting.
In Cicada (2001), Evans presents a three-panel narrative that reads from left to right like a film storyboard. Here we have a world seen from three different distanced perspectives: structuring his picture plane so that we witness the action from above and slightly to the right. Evans has very consciously placed us in the position of omniscient observer. In the left panel a child is positioned at the very edge of the frame, standing on his porch, holding a sparkler. In the far distance, we see the urban landscape sparkling with lights and the brilliant display of fireworks the child is watching. The second panel shifts, with almost microscopic scrutiny, to the insect world, with the urban scene marginalized in the upper left- and right-hand corners of the composition. Finally, to the right is a pulled-back view of the same porch from deep within the interior of the house. This psychological in-scape of isolation bears mysterious traces of human existence and interaction -- a ball and ring of stones on the floor, a wheelchair poised in the threshold of an interior doorway -- but these objects are removed, alienated from either the cosmopolitan world of the far distance or the natural world in the forest.
In this tour de force, Evans presents a microcosm of his artistic and philosophic concerns, and his techniques for drawing us in are honed to perfection. We know that a family lives here and we can sense their presence in the empty foyer. What we don't know are their circumstances and their relationship to their surroundings. This is the mystery that draws us in to the picture -- and holds us there, stopped in time.
Terrie Sultan is an American art historian and the director of the Parrish Art Museum in Long Island, NY. Previously she was the director of the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C.