Gravity Air, graphite on museum board, 1992, 40 x 60 inches, private collection
Disappearances: The Work of Rob Evans
(catalog essay from Evans' 1999 retrospective exhibition at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center Center, Newport News, VA)
By Charles Baxter
Many paintings serve as windows that look outward or inward toward an artist's distinctive world. That world, set before us in these paintings by Rob Evans, is notable for its beautiful precision and its equally beautiful and very insistent strangeness. We seem to have walked into a place that is both familiar and haunted. A model train with one tiny headlight is running in an abandoned upstairs room (Marietta Train). Phones are left off the hook, and water is left boiling on the kitchen stove, though to what purpose we cannot know (Late Dinner II). Insects seem to be approaching us to ask some sort of personal question. And the quiet mysteriousness is intensified by all the thresholds: the windows, and doors, and fences that are half open before us, as if somebody had just been there a moment ago but then had to rush out. Standing in front of his work, the viewer is likely to feel some combination of eerie desolation and recognizable domestic comfort.
The genius of this artist is to present us with seemingly rock-solid objects and apparently real geometries in the service of a vision that keeps insisting on disappearances. It is all rigorous but all slightly askew. In Rob Evans' earlier work, you, the viewer, are always being warmly invited in and simultaneously abandoned. The door is open. The lights are on. Moths flutter around those lights. Beyond the windows and gates a world is visible. Someone (no longer there) has drawn a bath, or has been playing a board game, or has hung up shirts in the laundry room. Off in the distance, over there, at the horizon, are the telltale signs of city.
But then you notice that it is nearly always twilight in this world, the boundary between day and night. And you notice that all the other appreciable boundaries that seem to keep us safely here, and warm, have a slightly sinister quality, while outside the storms or snows appear to be raging. In Rob Evans' scenes of interior rooms and exterior yards there is a devotion to clean horizontal and vertical lines, the architecture of the scrupulous American middle-class (the rooms are mostly very tidy), but it's been placed in the service of an Alice-in-Wonderland feeling. Like Alice, you feel like a guest in these houses abandoned by the hosts, or, more likely, like a child suddenly and inexplicably abandoned by your parents.
The contrast of warmth and coldness -- the warmth of the lights and the colors and the familiar rooms and the coldness of the snow and the general ghostliness -- is particularly apparent in Gravity Air, where the furnace, just like a human heart (and looking, a bit, like one, too) pumps out heat, but as your eye wanders around the rooms down there in the basement, you notice that the shirts look like floating ghosts, a visible man model -- a plastic assemblage with all his internal organs on display -- has been laid out in a coffin-box filled with electrical wire and packing excelsior, and the light is coming into the room from the damnedest places, including, it seems, the foundations. Even the door into the furnace is ajar! The design of the basement is precise and detailed but impossible. You feel the heat and the chill simultaneously, and the effect is dizzying.
As in Alice in Wonderland, proportions are skewed, and objects are quick to experience metamorphosis. The furnace is a heart, the plants are pregnant, the bush (under a floodlight) is a burning bush, the volleyball net is a perfectly ominous fence you might never get past, and the radishes seem to be engaged in some odd sexual practice. It's in the nature of any threshold-experience that you feel as if you're going to step across a boundary, into a new or different world, a new or different life. You are about to experience a change. This may be why the later paintings are obsessed with insects that have gone through a metamorphosis: moths, butterflies, and cicadas.
But the insects have acquired strange proportions: in Moth the moth is huge and seems to have eyes on its wings and is framed, in effect, by tiny gateways on either side, leading us to or away from the moth's gaze, pinned there to the board. The cicadas appear to have morphed into faces, and the tiny predator of Predator seems to have gotten up close and personal, and is staring straight at you. Like Kafka's fictions, Rob Evans' paintings have behind them a set of questions rigged up by the fiercest geometries, and the sign of those questions, in both these fictions and these paintings, is the half-open door and the window. "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." After looking at himself, Kafka tells us, Gregor next looks at a picture, then at a window.
Here are some of those windows. Here in Rob Evans' brilliantly devised art, are worlds within worlds, paintings with other paintings inside them (a classic mode, classically executed), paintings-as-windows, windows-as-paintings, realism in the service of dream. The fanatic detail, the wondrous and transfixed sense of unfilled space, the truly dazzling sense of telescoped perspective, and the subtle feeling for color -- all of these things bring us to a feeling for things about to disappear, things that have disappeared, that are no longer there, but which may be about to come back. Like the very best artists, Rob Evans gives us the visible in the service of the unseen.
Charles Baxter is an award winning American novelist, essayist and poet whose works have received wide acclaim. He is a National Book Award Finalist and has received the Award in Literature from the National Academy of Arts and Letters. His novel, "Feast of Love," was made into a film starring Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear. Evans' painting "Burning" was featured on the cover of the first edition of Baxter's 1993 novel "Shadow Play."