by Jonathan Griffin
Where, in Nick Evans’ art, does the soul reside? It’s an odd question to ask of sculptures on plinths, but the heart of Evans’ beguiling work is strangely absent – that is to say, it is not where we might ordinarily expect to find it.
The Asante people, like many others in West Africa, believe a stool to be the container of its owner’s soul. They consider it impolite just to sit down on someone else’s stool. The Golden Stool – a richly ornamented version passed from king to king – is believed to embody the collective spirit of the people, and is placed on a chair of its own during ceremonies. The Asanti put an icon of the stool on their flag, and have fought fiercely to protect it from their enemies.
What must they have thought when Pierre LeGrain, the French Art Deco furniture designer and bookbinder, stole the design of the classic Asanti stool for European clients in the 1920s and ’30s? Do the metaphysical properties of an object or an image stay with it as travels from context to context? In contemporary Western cultural theory, the consensus seems to be that it doesn’t, although I think that, deep down, most of us are not so sure.
LeGrain also borrowed from Constantin Brancusi, the form of whose Endless Column (1918/38) provided the legs for a red lacquered coffee table. Brancusi’s column was itself initially designed as a pedestal for other sculptures; debates still rage about whether the artist copied the form from African tribal art or from Romanian folk designs. Either way, it is curious that this icon of metaphysical transcendence began life as a pragmatic solution for holding another object off the floor.
None of which, I hasten to add, is requisite information for appreciating any of Evans’ art, although its philosophical implications might be useful to reflect on. Evans has become known for making work that, though it may at first look familiar, becomes stranger and more unknowable the longer we spend with it. Two recent series of work consist of sculptures of abstract figures which themselves sit on pedestals featuring the forms of differently abstracted figures. Bodies holding up bodies, as it were. For his 2010 exhibition at Mary Mary, he placed writhing plaster forms on wooden plinths that were based on a graphic of a squatting stickman who might equally have derived from African tribal art as Keith Haring’s illustrations. Evans did not reveal the answer because there was none; both and neither were true. The same year, for an exhibition at Kunstverein Hamburg, he installed plaster objects on MDF plinths that were screen-printed with a pattern based on a drawing of a figure by the primitive expressionist Asger Jorn.
Evans has spoken of trying, in his work, to hold together two (or more) terms that are in opposition to one another. In the examples above, it is virtually impossible to reconcile such different aesthetic registers; the wildly divergent conceptions of what a human body might look like effectively cancel each other out – or, rather, they frame each other in quotation marks. In the screen-printed patterns that Evans uses as grounds for objects to sit on (linguistic membranes between the plinth and the sculpture), repeating icons such as bones or tadpoles line up in dazzling but senseless rows. They look like language, but are in fact only fragments of alphabet, abandoned by syntax and grammar to sit mutely like a tray of letterpress type.
Someone in search of the soul of Evans’ sculptures would probably turn their attention away from his Postmodern plinths and semiotic screenprints and focus instead on the scraped and scarred plaster bodies above. Many evoke the mid-century figuration of British sculptors such as Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick or Reg Butler; it is in these forms that the artist’s tactile encounter with his medium is most evident, and in which we’d expect to find an existential account of human experience.
They are not really bodies at all, but something about their heft and imbalance returns us to thoughts of our naked selves. Many seem to consist entirely of stumps, as if limbless marble statues abducted from Classical ruins had been sealed inside doughy, pale flesh. They are suggestive without being sexy – lumps that look like breasts, a bottom or a penis and testicles remind us of the ludicrous indignity of the human form.
The sculptures’ fecundity is more than just representational, however. Their proliferation (Evans likes to show them in groups) takes on an uncanny dimension when we notice certain shapes repeating across the works. In fact they are all made from a very limited number of moulded forms, which the artist hacks together to make new, Frankensteinian variations. This breeding process turns sinister when it dawns on us that these are not unique expressions of human experience but automatic gestures, concretized and relayed, potentially, ad infinitum.
Is it possible, then, that these objects are actually blank and generic dummies, and the real location of the soul – or truth, or core, or heart, whatever you want to call it – of Evans’ sculptures is not here but, as the Asanti believe, in the stools on which they sit? In his most recent works, these bases take the forms of Pierre LeGrain’s bastardized Brancusi coffee-table; Evans’ extra layer of appropriation drags them still further from any sense of origin or singular meaning. The pedestals are models of lostness, bobbing on a sea of contradictory meanings and holding up husks of bodies that have long since been evacuated.
Perhaps, instead and somewhat more encouragingly, the soul of Evans’ work is secreted in between these clashing registers of rootless forms. Marcel Duchamp described the infinitessimally narrow space between, for example, a glass and the table it sits on as infra-mince. Evans’ patterned surfaces occupy the infra-mince space between plinth and figure, but there are, of course, further gaps between them and whatever else they are touching. It seems to me that it is in these zones of transition and becoming that the crux of Evans’ project resides. In between meaning and association, identity and expression, remains a narrow, unclaimed space of freedom and potential.
Commissioned by Mary Mary Gallery, Glasgow