The viability of an artistic tradition depends upon the determination and momentum an artist brings to it. We’ve all seen paintings, drawings or sculptures that reiterate firmly established conventions, often with appealing dexterity and patent intensity. They can be pleasing to look at. Invariably, though, they’re unnecessary—nostalgic glosses with noble intentions.
It’s one thing just to spin the wheels of tradition or, if you prefer, style; it’s quite another to road-test its tenets. Reiteration isn’t invention. Tradition honors considered skepticism. Hard questions can lead to dramatic breaks and reveal surprising continuities. Modernism is testament both to the flexibility of tradition and its unyielding purpose. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Matisse’s Luxe, Calme, et Volupté are but two examples of the unlimited potential residing within its parameters.
Yet, as is more often the case, artists can ask questions that are subtler, if no less probing and challenging. It has become difficult to recognize when a contemporary painter or sculptor wrests something individual from tradition. Our what’s-hot-and-what’s-not culture—dependent on spectacle, novelty, and magazines like People and Artforum—can dull the capability to parse and undergo deeper and quieter pleasures.
Garth Evans’ sculptures at Lori Bookstein Fine Art fit into an identifiable style: biomorphic abstraction. The eight pieces operate within a modernist current explored by the likes of Hans Arp, early Giacometti, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi and Joan Miró. There are unmistakable intimations of natural phenomena: the figure, geological formations and fauna less than flora, though the organic nature of Mr. Evans’ methods recall the slow and steady transformation of plant life.
However much we can place Mr. Evans’ art within a tradition, we haven’t seen anything quite like it before. What’s unsettling about the sculptures is how they flit from under our expectations. Pegging them is a fool’s game. But Mr. Evans’ art isn’t evasive; it’s rich with—and enriched by—experience. The work takes on a lot to chew and chews it well. His bulbous forms struggle and writhe, as if they couldn’t bear the myriad contradictions they embody. It’s a fascinating tussle to behold.
You could argue that the pieces aren’t in a modernist vein at all. Modernism, despite its many glories, did much to winnow the possibilities of art, to diminish its breadth and reach. Mr. Evans’ work could be regarded as anti-modernist, or at least un-modernist, because its inclusive nature welcomes greater and, at times, maddening complexity.
If his project is anti-modern in intent, it’s also pre-modern in character. Buried not far under the surface of his muscular forms are antecedents that can be traced to antiquity, particularly the art of Greece and Rome. A transplant from England, Mr. Evans may well have spent his formative years looking at the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. In fact, I’d bet on it. His sculptures, while humbler in scope, have a related sweep and motion. The mute dignity of Toward (1992), Driven (1992-94) and Armed (1992-95) also recalls that of The Dying Gaul (circa 230-220 B.C). Their valiant gestures almost qualify them as transcriptions of that art-historical staple.
These “bodies,” Mr. Evans tells us, are “embodiments of … preverbal states of awareness.” They offer an “exploration and discovery of one’s body, its limits and its limitations and, also, of course, the pleasures it brings.”
It’s worth noting that the titles of Mr. Evans’ pieces are, if not verbs exactly, then indicative of physical effort and, as its corollary, psychological exertion. Driven, Tend, Beyond, Through, even Milk—what’s important is not that the titles describe, but that the works exemplify and expand upon those descriptions.
Mr. Evans works with humble materials. No marble or bronze for him, thank you very much; ratty and everyday stuff will do. Each sculpture is a patient accumulation of bits and pieces of discarded cardboard boxes. Cutting them into geometric shards—the triangle is a favored building block—Mr. Evans combines and shapes them into flowing, intricate and monumental forms.
He’s unapologetic about the cut-rate nature of his medium. Stains, pen marks, logos and fragments of identifiable instructions (“ndle with c”, “agile”) shuttle across the surfaces and are punctuated by colored strips of paper, among them bits of red, yellow and a muted phthalo green.
It’s unclear whether these serve a structural purpose—as band-aids, if you will, for the cardboard faceting—or as decorative fillips. It doesn’t matter: The tabs of color set into motion staccato rhythms that play off the rolling forms and the cardboard’s dirty and crumpled browns. A layer of fiberglass, pockmarked and imperfect, envelops each piece, endowing them with fleshy exteriors. Skin, Mr. Evans suggests, is not only a conductor of sensation; it is a dauntingly tenuous barrier. Mortality permeates the work, eroticism less so. The tender gravity of Mr. Evans’ pursuit is palpable.
Maybe it’s the fiberglass talking, but the art of Eva Hesse seems a useful counterpoint. The two sculptors share a dark and vaguely absurdist take on bodily vulnerability. Thankfully, Mr. Evans avoids (or ignores) the deadening prescriptions of Minimalism, a school that has done all-but-irreparable damage to several generations of artists.
Mr. Evans’ “bodies,” like Hesse’s skins and vessels, suggest memento mori, yet they never succumb to inertia. However occluded and strained, vitality courses through their gritty, muscular and inelegant frames. His accomplishment is, in the end, everything Hesse’s admirers claim for her art, but that her art itself can’t sustain. In his own mordant way, Mr. Evans is an optimist: He reminds us that the true and only subject of art is life.
Garth Evans: Sculpture is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 37 West 57th Street, third floor, until Oct. 21.