How to find a way of painting that isn’t redundant and old-fashioned has been a problem at least since the birth of photography but especially from the 1960s after conceptual art and abstraction. For many in Scottish art, like Peter Howson, the solution was to revolt against the academic and create a physical, muscular style, as if rippling biceps and taut sinews could break free from the picture plane and return to the world outside. But often this style seems as exaggerated and fake as attempts to recapture masculinity in the 1980s action films of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
David Pugh Evans (born 1942) went in the opposite direction, but then he came to Scotland not from it. He highlights the limits of painting: the flat surface, the selection of a tiny part of the world in a frame, the second-hand relationship of artwork to world, the moment frozen in time and divorced from context or flow. In particular, his art focuses on the genre of pictures of pictures. In Summer Mirage (c. 1984), there is a portrait of a man but the image is dominated by an image hanging on a wall of a warplane. The male figure is himself in some hidden relationship with an image, whose artificality is highlighted by reflections. Is this a picture of the contemporary art collector with his picture hidden behind glass, or of someone who has a much more immediate relationship with fast flight and war, caught in the modern relationship between suburban banality and technological violence?
Evans studied in his native Wales from 1959 to 1962 at Newport College of Art, then at the Royal College of Art, London from 1962 to 1965, before moving to Edinburgh to lecture at Edinburgh College of Art from 1965 to 1998 until his retirement. But it wasn’t a parochial life: he travelled widely, especially in the USA which often features in his work. Career highlights included a retrospective at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket gallery in 1982, becoming an Associate of the Royal Society of Arts in 1965, and election to the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1974 and the Royal Scottish Academy in 1989.
From his early surrealist-influenced work, he has frequently focused on enigmatic spaces and Hopper-esque empty rooms. The Quiet Theft (1965) shows an explicit influence of Magritte with its combination of bold everyday objects and a sense of the uncanny. Evans’ work is less about incongrous juxtapositions than a quiet sense of the menacing or melancholy, puzzles without solutions such as North Corridor (1979) or The New Member.
Like Alex Colville, the Canadian artist whose works feature in Kubrick’s The Shining, Evans’s art is about the impossibility of knowledge, the limitations of what we can see and how we can never go beyond the surfaces we perceive. Colville summons up these surfaces with a combination of painterly texturing and carefully-delineated monochromatic surfaces. Unlike Evans’ contemporary in Scotland, Stephen Campbell, whose works often resemble film scenes, catching action in mid progress and evoking past or future events, there is little narrative. As with Edward Hopper, another influence, these characters are caught where they are and could be nobody else.
As with the best British pop art (Richard Hamilton, Edward Paolozzi, Allen Jones, the writer J G Ballard), Summer Mirage evokes both domestic everyday life and the threatening power of technology. Why does this ordinary-looking, suburban man have a picture of fighter plane above him? Is he excited by the possibilities of technology or the romance of airborne dogfight? He’s not even looking at the picture: he leans forwards as if in rapt attention to something else, although his profile echoes that of the plane. Is it a memento mori?
The jet plane recalls above all the pop artist Colin Self, whose works like Leopardskin Nuclear Bomber No. 2 and Waiting Women and Two Nuclear Weapons (Handley Page Victors) combine jet fighters with fashion, perhaps indicating the close relationship between the military-industrial complex and modern consumerism, or the violence at the heart of our everyday lives and glamorous fantasies. But he is facing away from us, placed low in the frame, cut off by the bottom edge of the picture. Is he an observer, or a participant in something unseen?
It is a painting about layers. In the front, the frieze-like profile. Then the golden shining frame. Within that there are at least three more layers: the image of the plane itself, the reflection of the window and shutter, and the reflected garden beyond the window.These reflections create the space around the imaginary viewer, and yet the shutter is flat, face-on, without perspective, the trees are dappled with paint like a Seurat, the sky blank compared to that with the image of the jet. The reflection of the window rather than being a world outside is just another picture, another flat surface. The camouflage paint on the plane’s tail blends in with the patchy clouds and its colour matches the trees. The blue sky and white clouds recall the impossible images of Magritte, patches of paint on a board. And yet the point of the plane’s nose and the brightly lit incredibly phallic forms of its bombs, missiles, and pods emphasise its alien, violent nature.
Evans subtly mixes styles: the metallic frame is captured with almost photorealistic detail. WIthin is more impressionistic, while the man is carefully drawn in a typically 80s Scottish style: Evans gives three dimensional form to strands of hair, folds in his jacket, wrinkles in his skin. The detail of the picture frame emphasises the insubstantiality of its contents, and of course throws our attention to the frame around the larger image. The man is carefully detailed and yet we are told nothing about him.
Summer Mirage is one of several paintings of pictures by Evans from the mid 1980s. These always demonstrate the dual status of images as both object and sign: works such such as Summer Reflections (1984-5) which shows a woman’s black and white photograph on a table, obscured by the reflection of a mirror, or Fragile Union (1984-85) which juxtaposes the glass over a photograph with a hammer; and an elegiac portrait of a portrait of John F Kennedy.
A similar interest in reproduction is found in his hyperrealist works. Hyperrealism is mainly associated with Americans like Richard Estes (whose Wikipedia page cautions is not to be confused with “the wildebeest expert” Richard Despard Estes), and seeks to produce a painting that resembles a photograph with all of its fine detail and none of the brush marks or other signs of painterly effort. In paintings such as Evening Gasoline (1978) and No Diving, the result is at once technical skill and self-effacement, rejecting the idea of the artist as expressive genius in favour of robotic duplication. Hyperrealism also is a picture of a picture, an attempt at reproduction that foregrounds its status as reproduction even as it attempts to reproduce a photograph.
Evans stands out for his unpainterly qualities, his effacement of brushmarks and the whole romantic tradition of the artist as prophet – even in the 1970s and 1980s heroic rebels were still the currency of Scottish art. He brings different traditions – photorealism, pop art, surrealism, north American realism – into his art, creating images which are at once suggestive and complete in themselves.
The title adds another level: is some or all of this a mirage, an imagining? Are all paintings mirages? It also calls to the materiel of war: named after the Dassault Mirage F1 it depicts, one of a highly successful series of French warplanes. The fighter saw action for France, Iraq, and South Africa in the 1980s, and was used by both sides in the 1990-91 Gulf War.
David Evans, Summer Mirage, 1985.
Oil on Canvas, 107 x 132 cm.
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.