21st March - 14th April 2012
Opening: 20th March 2012
Garth Evans; evolving constructions 1959 - 1980
Garth Evans; evolving constructions 1959 - 1980
Making Things: Aspects of Garth Evans as a Constructor
I remember an important occasion and being asked why I had become a sculptor. I said that it was because I liked making things. I think this was received as a naïve answer – at any rate there were no further questions about it. I wasn’t asked about the nature of ‘liking’ or about what constitutes ‘making’. I feel sure that my questioner assumed that what and how we come to classify a ‘thing’ was well established, and there was no discussion about what might be entailed by the ‘I’ of my utterance.
Introduction to steel, 1970-1972
Two works sit somewhere near the chronological centre of this exhibition. One, Spring of 1972 is actually present. The other, Breakdown, made the previous year, is represented by a drawing that Evans made after the sculpture’s completion to aid its disassembly and reassembly. The steel web of Breakdown, which when fully assembled covered an area of over forty-five square metres, was only shown once, at the Royal Academy’s British Sculptors ’72. The following year it was stolen, presumably for its scrap value, from the railings outside Evans’ new studio, where its disassembled parts had been chained as they proved too large to take into the studio itself. There are currently plans for Breakdown to be remade, following the instructions which the drawing displayed here provide.
Both Spring and Breakdown resulted, more or less directly, from a fellowship Evans was offered by the British Steel Corporation in 1970, during which time he was committed to working with steel. The BSC instigated a search for an artist following a suggestion by the Artist Placement Group, who attempted to readdress the marginality of the modern artist within society by arranging for artists to work for extended periods alongside industry or government departments. On a visit near the beginning of his fellowship to the East Greenwich depot of Redpath Dorman Long, Evans noticed a number of strange constructions welded together from pieces of scrap steel. Inquiring about them, he was told they had been made by apprentices as exercises and as such were worthless and destined to be thrown away or broken up and reused. Evans however was struck by their unintended and transient beauty, and approached them as he would a sculpture in a gallery. He felt one of the configurations gave the impression of being complete, so that no element ‘could be changed or altered independently, or any addition made to extend the structure in a logical way’. Two others ‘by comparison appear as if they might be fragments of a larger total, and their extendibility is a feature which contributes to their more open and spontaneous air’.
A relation between spontaneity, completeness, the possibility of extension and the potential for irresolution marked Evans’ time with British Steel. Steel was a new medium to him. Most of the work he made during the sixties, when he began to establish himself as an artist with a series of exhibitions at the Rowan Gallery, had been in fibreglass, a material then new to fine art. In an interview just prior to his fellowship Evans admitted that the hardness of steel ‘terrifies me… it comes with an identity, and with associations of its own. I shall try to approach the material as a new thing, without having preconceived intentions. But this will be difficult.’ As well as steel’s industrial connotations,somewhere in his mind was a need to avoid using it in manner similar to the American David Smith, or his English successor, Anthony Caro, who had then recently confirmed his dominance of the British sculpture scene of the sixties with a major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery.
In the end, such was Evans’ unease that he failed to complete a single sculpture during the whole of the first year sponsored by British Steel, and this ‘despite a lot of activity in the studio, moving steel around, cutting, arranging, rearranging endlessly but without being able to fix anything.’ Perhaps slightly surprisingly the fellowship was extended for another twelve months. For a few months his difficulties continued, to the extent that a colleague suggested that he was enacting a performance rather than making sculpture, and that perhaps he should take his show on the road.
In his frustration Evans grabbed ten lengths of steel, each of which he had previously topped and tailed with shorter pieces projecting out at an angle. Instinctively he welded them together into something like a disjointed lattice and after stepping back, then returning to make a few adjustments, he realized that the piece needed to be bigger. He continued to add to it using the same loose lattice formation and eventually it reached the walls of his studio. Evans then worked within the limitations that the studio imposed, adjusting the piece so as to try and avoid creating ‘pattern… repetition, opening, focus or path through.’ In attempting to refuse access to any kind of inner logic he hoped the piece would be ‘read as a single entity.’ Evans now sees the completion of Breakdown as breaking through a block that developed whilst on his fellowship with British Steel. Looking at photographs of it, it is easy to see it as encapsulating and bringing to resolution the difficult activity of the previous months, with the limitation of its twisting sprawl giving a definite form to the uncertainty of arranging and rearranging. In this it can be compared to the allover gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism, an important influence on Evans and on British abstract sculpture of the sixties in general. After the exhibition of Breakdown at the Royal Academy at the beginning of 1972 Evans felt he was able to return to a few lengths of steel he had previously spent much unsuccessful time with and, ‘having a sense of the territory I was working in’ and feeling that this territory could be properly called his own, out of these lengths he was able to make sculptures such as Spring.
1959 and through into the sixties.
Tracking back a little over a decade to the chronological beginning of the exhibition, there is a mixed group of domestically-scaled constructions whose part to part structures contrast with those in Breakdown and Spring. Most of them date from toward the end of Evans’ time at the Slade, where he studied sculpture between 1957 and 1960. They show the young Evans looking beyond what he felt were the restrictive practices of modeling and casting that dominated the school’s curriculum. A useful tool in plotting another course, though one which at times Evans found ‘dogmatic and prescriptive’, was Charles Biedermann’s Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge. The text espoused a rational and abstract constructed sculpture in tune with the machine age and was important to British Constructivists such as Victor Pasmore and Mary and Kenneth Martin, who during the fifties were the most committed abstract artists working within Britain. Evans’ very early work owed much to theirs; in an early group exhibition, Construction England in 1963, he was one of a handful of younger artists shown following in the footsteps of the older generation.
In balsa wood, hardboard and off-cuts of furniture or perhaps scraps of cornicing, the sculptures have a structural integrity which both belies and draws upon their literal material fragility. Slightly solemn, they wear this lightly and seem at once tentative and certain, as if a definite statement had been carefully and quietly inched toward. They faintly echo skyscrapers and the human figure, and whilst this perhaps points indirectly to the technological preoccupations of the Constructivists, their uprightness now seemsappropriate for works which mark the opening of a career, as if Evans was standing up to be counted as a constructor. The way they meld two scales is connected to the fact that certain of the discrete parts within each construction clearly show that they result from a steady building up from the base, whilst others appear to hang suspended, near weightless despite the fact that they support parts higher up the sculpture. The sculptures have a restraint typical of the Constructivists and share their love of the linear and the orthogonal. But where the Constructivists in the main used intuition warily, to temper or enhance and so make palpable an underlying and preordained mathematical or proportional system, Evans’ constructions seem wholly intuitive, finding order rather than proceeding from it.
Some of the models may be a little later in date or at least anticipate much of Evans’ work of the mid to late sixties. One is perhaps indirectly related to Maid of Honor, recently on show at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (United Enemies). Though his exhibitions early in the decade were mainly comprised of reliefs, during the sixties Evans was one of a large number of artists producing free-standing large scale abstract, or at least non-figurative, sculpture. Though only represented in this exhibition at a small scale, this period of Evans’ work, during which he gained prominence as an artist, is an important one for understanding his attitude toward sculpture.
In the sixties Evans and his contemporaries rejected the mathematical and utopian pieties of Constructivism, whilst arguably at times sacrificing some of its subtlety and grace. Evans’ volumetric fibreglass sculptures sometimes formed a singular quasi-surrealistic image, and even when they were not surreal, they were still in general glossy, artificial and playful and at times erotic or sexualized. Toward the end of the decade, playfulness and sex were subdued by a return to part to part construction, a good example of which, Untitled No. 38 of 1968 was shown at Poussin in 2009. Sculptures such as this owed something to Evans’ early experience of Constructivism, whilst significantly deviating from its example. Where Constructivism attempted objectivity by making manifest a pre-existing, self-contained and complete order, Evans’ sixties sculptures made a subjective appeal to the viewer. As such they broke with Constructivism in much more decisive fashion than the difference quietly hinted at by the intuitive and non-systematic approach to construction noted previously. In bright colour, at human scale and placed directly on the gallery floor, the large parts of sculptures such as Untitled No. 38 intruded into the viewer’s space, as a visual and physical challenge. These sculptures were emphatic and overloaded, to be felt rather than carefully analysed and understood.
The Constructivists were able to spread their work beyond the traditional boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture, but did so within the constraints of the plane or the cube. The ideal their abstraction projected depended on a remove from the messy exigencies of the world, a remove provided by the closed systems of basic geometry. In contrast, the sculpture of Evans and his contemporaries, despite its abstraction and clear affinity with painting, still maintained some kind of connection, admittedly at times tenuous or overlain with other references or structures, with the coherences and limitations of the body. In his early constructions this had been limited to a simple upright, to the body as a seen thing, or as a statue. In much of his sixties sculpture the body is perhaps a felt thing, found in intimations of joints, even if exaggerated ones, and in a sense of a just held and dynamic presence, one which, on occasion formed around a central core, frequently pushed onto the bodily space of the viewer.
The dynamic relation to the body was perhaps a retrograde step as it maintained a link with what had been the vehicle for much of the past history of sculpture. But this was more than made up for by the fact that the lingering presence of the body accompanied and perhaps in part enabled a greater diversity of structure as well as an attention to sensuous experience, that were both lacking in the hermetic order of the Constructivists. A relation to the body and an intrusion on the bodily space of the viewer also seem somehow involved with the fact that Evans’ sculpture of the sixties attempted to provoke an emotional response or to create analogues to unnamable feeling. This feeling was in general expansive, implying an optimistic and hedonistic belief in personal experience distinct from the utopian and social optimism of the Constructivists.
Though it is certainly concerned with feeling, it would be hard to call Spring an optimistic sculpture. It can perhaps be partly understood as a discomforting merger between Evans’ early interest in the closed order of Constructivism and the overt rejection he made of this during the sixties, as if his overloaded sixties sculpture had been forced into a structure that was too small to contain it. The sculpture is placed directly in the viewer’s space, and its anonymous lengths of steel extend across this space. Yet the overall effect is insular, as if it was turning in on itself. Consequently it is difficult to approach and does not declare or project emotion but instead insinuates it. Though it has an animation – it perhaps crouches more than it is placed – this is made both animal and mechanical, contained and pushed close to the floor by the even pressure of its horizontal top-piece.
Its remove does not accompany, as within Constructivism, a readily comprehensible structure, but embraces something irrational with a vague, unsettling menace. In this I think it occupies a unique position within the spatially extended sculpture which came out of the sixties, certainly fulfilling Evans’ desire to avoid the examples of Smith and Caro. Central to its success is the way in which an arbitrary and confusing structure is stated with clarity. Neither the careful building up of the early constructions nor the restless sprawl of Breakdown are present. If there is a sense of the extended process of making and remaking which preceded the sculpture’s creation, this is expressed in the unease of its clarity, in an astringency in which its joints seem tensed rather than naturally eased or inched into position. Each part seems, perhaps like a more refined version of one of the welding exercises Evans had seen at Redpath Dorman Long, to resist change, independent alteration or logical extension, yet this completeness is uncomfortable and it is difficult to fully grasp its structure. Though the seeming contradiction between clarity and confusion, completeness and discomfort can be seen from a single viewpoint, it becomes most obvious when circling the sculpture. Despite the limited number of parts of which it is comprised it is fairly difficult to understand one view in terms of another. As it is circled, joints which at first appeared arrayed in a particular sequence clench up, unfold or unravel into another quite unexpected one, creating the effect of an angular and irregular concertinaing.
Woodcut, 1977 and Phoenix No. 26, c.1980
Evans’ has written that at the turn of the sixties into the seventies he wanted to make a sculpture which did not readily exist within ‘the world of things’, which did not ‘offer itself as an object.’ In the case of Spring it is important to see that this was not a total retreat from the world, nor a complete refusal to offer itself as an object, but rather that its clarity and its physicality effects at once an ambiguous intrusion and a partial withdrawal. This ambiguity was the territory which Evans discovered during the making of Breakdown. The two most recent sculptures in the exhibition, Woodcut and Phoenix No. 26 both work in a related way. They are clearly physical structures, in fact more bluntly physical than Spring, or any of the other works in the exhibition, but both exist liminally, one occupying the floor and the other the wall.
Woodcut is one of a number of what he came to call ‘carpet’ works whichEvans made in the seventies and which spread laterally in a manner first found in Breakdown. As with Breakdown and the other ‘carpet’ works, Woodcut was the result of a series of actions, of rules the parameters of which were found from within improvisation in relation to a material. It was made from the remains of a shed which had blown down near Evans’ studio. Gluing the pieces of the shed together to form a single unit, Evans found that he had unwittingly stuck it to the studio floor. As he knew it would be impossible to remove in one piece, he first strengthened it with more glue and dowels, then cut it into pieces as he pried it off the floor, so that it tessellated together in a pattern related to but subtly opposed to those formed by the planks of the shed and the knots and imperfections of the wood.
Where in Constructivism the material is employed to make the rule or underlying order manifest, in Evans’ sculpture, it is often difficult to intuit the system (as in Breakdown) and even when it is clear (as in Woodcut), the sense is that the rule serves to stage the material rather than the other way around. This overt and intrusive materiality is part of the personal and subjective appeal that Evans first made in his sixties sculpture. Yet in stark contrast to the artificial nature of his sixties fibreglass, which often looked as if it had not been touched by human hand, much of Evans’ work of the seventies makes use of roughly-hewn or irregular material and draws attention to the activity of its making. The traces of this action are ambiguously intermingled with our emotional response to the work. Perhaps more important is that in his work of the sixties, bright flat colour imbued even his most definite structural arrangements with a sense of the intangible. Woodcut differs from this in that its rough texture plays an important role in establishing its sense of reality, the knotted wood and roughly glued dowels allowing the stark and basic underlying structure to tenaciously grip space. This type of sensuality is typical of Evans’ sculpture of the seventies, also strangely present in the powerful whiff of creosote that the sculpture gives off.
The verticality of Phoenix No. 26 and the anonymous parts from which its structure was improvised differs from the upright constructions that marked the beginning of Evans’ career as a constructor a little over two decades earlier. In Phoenix No. 26 gone is the fragility of the early work, the confusion of Breakdown or the insularity of Spring, these qualities replaced by a breadth which is rung from only a few broad stabs of material. Though it sinks back into the wall it also seems to command it, opening out laterally instead of pulling back into itself. Like many of the works in the exhibition Phoenix No. 26 marks a period of change or reformulation in Evans’ work. Rooted in his earlier development as a constructor, it stands on the edge of the greater complexity he would introduce into his work in the eighties.