(Studio 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia, March 27-April 11 1987)
[First published in Vancouver's Vanguard magazine, Sept./Oct. issue, 1987, 42.]
Leya Evelyn believes that painting should be a contemplative experience. She lives on a beautiful stretch of Nova Scotia coastline in Sambro, and feels landscape painting "...is unnecessary - it's already here."
She makes abstract paintings in muted colours. Recent works include photographs collaged into painted abstract surfaces. The empirical - even positivist - presumption that an abstract painting is an object in its own right echoes a hidden presumption of photography : do they claim to be historically inevitable objects, linked by succession? How interesting that they should catch up with each other in Leya Evelyn's paintings.
Evelyn studied with Joseph Albers and afterward spent over twenty years in New York. She recalls that her first day at class with Albers involved drawing straight lines on paper; that sort of exercise opened her mind up. The classes were extremely demanding and disciplined. She also studied life drawing with William Bailey.
Evelyn's new works are small, sometimes about two feet square. Colour photographs and/or photographic reproductions are literally painted into them: floating out of pastel and oil are photographic bits of vegetation, Italianate architecture, ballet dancers and blue sky.
Evelyn loves photographs. "They aren't really what's there, they're really censorship," she says.
A simple fan shape or rhombus is etched out of the paint on paper as a container of the photo images. A squarish off-centre form plays against the edges of a work, or a fan shape is sectioned off with strips of photographic prints.
Photographs and paintings did not mix it up in her 1985 solo exhibition at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax, making me think the newer work is an oblique response to life in Nova Scotia. The 1985 paintings included bits of fabric, mostly from clothing, collaged into larger oil on canvas paintings using the same square or flat pie-shapes for animation. One of these paintings hung in the Studio 21 exhibition as a token of an abandoned style (perhaps).
The photographs highlight something dreamy and romantic in Evelyn's temperament. Toughly painted into the works, they bubble up to the surface amidst scumbles and scraps of paint and pastel : they are obviously meant to please and not provoke, like Matisse's armchairs for sinking into after a hard day. Evelyn must mean by 'contemplation' something pleasant, a watery interlude for busy people.
These paintings depart from the program we bluntly assume of abstract painting if we think it excludes obvious representational imagery. Evelyn's work seems so much a part of a tradition of New York abstract painting that some viewers might think she is breaking a rule by including photographs.
They can be seen as a witty variation of late 1970's New Image painting. Instead of reintroducing representational images as flat, clumsy signs which announce the return of academic representational painting, the photographs inside these works stand-off (however well they seem to be formally integrated into the surfaces) against what Evelyn makes into a representation of her own abstract painting. Hugging the photo-scraps are remnants of a ruptured painting style. The inclusion of photographs looks like a graphic denial of her previous work. That is positive: seeing how simply collage can disturb the surface of an otherwise run-of-the-mill painting.
But the word "rupture" is too strong. What saves these paintings from being confections is Evelyn's skill as a painter, but what prevents them from deeply moving viewers is the contemplative mood evokes by them.