Allison Evans

Allison Evans was born in New Haven, CT and currently lives/works in Brooklyn, NY. She received a BA from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH and an MFA from Hunter College in NYC. Evans has exhibited her work at The Journal, 106 Green, and Edward Thorp Gallery, among other venues. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings and Hyperallergic, and has been reviewed in The New York Times. She was a 2016 Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant Nominee.

Blending the languages of gestural painting, cartoon sketches, and storyboard frames, my work expresses the personal, social, and sexual anxieties that stem from attempts to navigate conflicting expectations. Within the limited vocabulary of line drawing, every mark conveys meaning. Without seducing the viewer from behind a veil of thick paint or color, I am able to speak as simply and directly as possible.

These paintings are about reduction. They are about not hiding – perhaps ironically so because I often depict characters whose faces are obscured. But it is through this lack of empathy in the protagonists' blank stares that I confront viewers, subvert their gazes, and ask them to decide whether the paintings are playful, erotic, or disturbing.

Humor helps to reconcile such contradictions, allowing contrary ideas to coexist while revealing aspects of reality in their juxtaposition. But unlike jokes, these paintings have no punch lines. Rather, they exist in a state of unresolved anxiety, an acknowledgment of the mixed signals that are inseparable from the experience of being female.

Allison in her Brooklyn studio.

Allison in her Brooklyn studio.

Q&A with Allison Evans

Questions by Emily Burns

Can you tell us more about your process? How do the drawings inform the paintings?
I generate a lot of drawings, all created with acrylic and brush on paper. Drawing allows me to work through ideas quickly and to take risks in the process. I translate these drawings directly onto canvas. The speed with which I execute the drawings and paintings allows me to avoid self-consciousness. I try not to edit myself or judge my impulses.

When did you begin working in a monochromatic, simplified style? What drew you to this approach?
I used to make very brightly-colored gestural oil paintings. I would always start with a loose idea or narrative in mind but “found” the final painting through the process of painting it. In 2014, I was working to resolve a few large paintings, each of which depicted a group of abstracted figures in an ambiguous setting. I wasn't sure how to proceed, so I sat down on the floor of my studio with a ream of 9x12 inch paper, some black acrylic paint, and a brush. I thought it might be a good idea to better understand my relationship to the figure that kept emerging in my work. From that ream of paper, I created my first series of monochromatic drawings, which I exhibited at 106 Green in early 2015. It took me six months to a year before I was able to take such a reduced, direct approach to the canvas.

Where you do find ideas to incorporate into your work? For example, the record and music notes in The Spirit of Jazz?
My ideas come from a variety of sources: film, comedy, books, conversations with friends, other art. I pull poses from fashion magazines. I look at a lot of vintage erotica. Sometimes an idea I've been tossing around for years finally finds its voice through my now simplified way of working. For example, I've always been fascinated by the ancient Egyptians. About ten years ago, I had an idea about a group of bag-headed figures who spoke to one another in hieroglyphs. I tried to develop my own hieroglyphic language at the time but couldn't find a way to work the language into my paintings. That idea resurfaced in I Want It All, which depicts a woman whose vagina communicates in a pictorial language.

Ideas come to me in a flood of urgency. It's a challenge to keep up with them, so I make lists. I don't remember why I decided to draw the record and music notes. One of my friends, artist Carlos Rigau, DJs quite a bit. We often talk about the cross-pollination between musicians and artists, so I'm sure that was a factor. I remember making the drawing for The Spirit of Jazz and immediately texting him a photo. At the time, a few of my friends were DJing at the now defunct Cafe Dancer on Orchard Street. They used The Spirit of Jazz as a promotional image.

Have you always worked with the figure?
I have consistently referenced the figure, though I haven't always worked with the human form directly. My earlier paintings depicted shark-headed creatures and bag-headed characters with ribbon-like bodies. So, the masked protagonist has always been a central theme.

Can you tell us more about the genesis of the pose of the woman presenting herself to the viewer? Was this based on a particular reference? How and why did this become a key component of your recent work?
There are many references for this pose: Courbet's Origin of the World, Rodin's erotic drawings, Marlene Dumas's ghostly figures, Tracey Emin's self-portraits... just to name a few. I definitely drew from that history, but I haven't relied solely on one reference. 

I am interested in sexuality as a source of both vulnerability and power. In our image-saturated culture, we are constantly barraged with different representations of women, some inspiring and some demoralizing. We regularly capture and share our own images on dating apps and social media. There is an illusion that we are in charge of our own representations and that we can control the way others perceive us. However, I think there are many ways women seek to empower themselves but end up objectifying themselves in the process. There is a lot of power in being female, and even in acknowledging our vulnerability. I am interested in how we can use that power beneficially and perhaps subversively.

Can you talk about about working is such an intuitive way, with minimal mark-making on larger, prepared surfaces like canvas? Is there a buildup of tension that manifests in the moment of paint application?
These days, the most intuitive part of my process comes in the drawing stage. When I begin working on a canvas, I generally have a very clear idea in mind about how I want the painting to look. This is not to say that there is no chance involved and that there are no accidents along the way. The material qualities of paint make it impossible to control completely. But I've set up very clear limitations for myself. For example, I have been using oil paint only on raw canvas primed with rabbit skin glue because raw canvas leaves no room for me to go back and “correct”.

Waiting for the perfect moment to release all of my tension onto a pristine canvas is too much pressure. There never is really a perfect moment. I try to avoid setting up excuses for procrastination.

As as artist, I am (unfortunately) precious about the time and monetary investment of preparing canvases. One of the most difficult things, for me, is to finish a painting successfully, both with ease and intention, which you do incredibly well. Is there an internal struggle involved in this part of your process?
There definitely used to be. Now I work out my paintings beforehand. For the most part, once I've transferred an idea onto canvas, either it works or it doesn't. If an idea doesn't work, I try it again or I move on to the next one. I think I'll probably reincorporate a little more intuitive discovery in future paintings, but for right now I'm enjoying the freedom that has come through imposing a set of limitations.

How do the raw canvases prepared with rabbit skin glue function differently from the works which are prepared with white gesso?
I tend to pair surface with content. For example, in I Want It All, I wanted the hieroglyphs to feel likecave painting or some sort of ruins. Raw canvas seemed to suit that content. Some of the loosergestural works (Dancer, What Are You Waiting For?) called for heightened contrast and a smoother surface, which allowed the paintbrush to glide quickly with less resistance.

I'm playing around with different materials and ways of priming those materials. Surface has become so important for me because the way I prime a canvas is actually part of the painting itself. Even small decisions matter.

Can you talk about the ‘mask' that covers the faces in many of your works? How does this device differ in the collages vs. the drawings and paintings, where the covering seems to lie on the surface vs. being integrated as part of the space?
The masking started as an intuitive move that probably revealed a bit of an unconscious obsession. Since I've started painting masked figures, I've noticed that I actually surround myself with masks. Even my cat has a mask – she's Siamese.

I am drawn to the ambiguity and mystery of a mask. Shrouding the face connotes many things: a desire for anonymity, a need to be someone else, a feeling of shame. A masked person can be either aggressor or victim. A mask grants its wearer the freedom to act without detection. In my work, I like that concealing the protagonist's facial expression makes her body language and the painting's other visual cues even more powerful.

The collages have been a form of play for me – a way of loosening up. I started collaging in 2010 or 2011, after having made a series of actual masks from paper bags. The masks in those collages had abstract markings and were modeled after Suprematist paintings. The physical act of covering a face with a mask or collaging onto a photograph is potentially more aggressive than the act of drawing. It reminds me that when a person wears a mask, it is meant to hide something tangible and possibly dangerous or unacceptable. Mask-making and collaging spurred my interest in working with the figure directly. [1] 

What is one of the most exciting things happening in your studio right now?
I'm drawing a lot, generating some provocative imagery for a new series of paintings. I'm also working on a set of Tarot cards.

What is a typical day like for you?
My schedule varies from day to day. I supplement my studio practice with work as a private academic tutor. On days when I work, I tend to go to the studio in the morning. When I'm not teaching, I like to start my day at the gym and then go to the studio. Incorporating exercise and some sort of relaxation is a very important part of my process.

Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
I look at so many artists; any list invariably falls short. Most recently: Francesca Woodman, Cecily Brown, Tracey Emin, Hans Breder, Rita Ackermann, Laura Owens, Philip Guston, Marlene Dumas, Auguste Rodin, Tal R, Rene Magritte, David Shrigley, and early David Hockney. I love Japanese Shunga painting. And Camille Henrot's fresco work is great, too. I really want to make a fresco.

Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I'd have to say The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe. It's a post-war Japanese novel about a man whose face is disfigured in a scientific experiment. He crafts a life-like mask as way to reconnect with society, though his primary aim is to seduce his wife who has shunned him. I've read several of Abe's books, but that one is my favorite. Hiroshi Teshigahara made a beautiful film based on the novel. Both the book and the film are very dark, existential, and mysterious.

I read a lot, often several books at once. I'm currently reading a collection of Jungian psychoanalytic essays about the “shadow” side of human nature and a book about the connection between the Tarot and creativity. I also just started Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Someone once told me that real artists create no matter how they feel. I don't know if that's true – or even what the phrase “real artist” means – but I try to get into the studio regardless of my mood. I make work when I'm angry, sad, depressed, or lonely – and I let myself share that work. I think it's valuable to have a record of all these emotional states.

Sometimes I go into my studio and all I can do is make really terrible, angry art. I came into my studio one day last month and found my desk littered with “fuck you” drawings I had made a couple of days before. They made me laugh. One drawing was of a coffee cup with the words “fuck you” scrawled on its surface. (I was trying to stop drinking caffeine, and it wasn't going well!) I think I may make that one into a painting. Why not?

What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
My biggest challenge is always getting out of my own way and channeling my energy in positive directions. I am a very anxious person, and, like many artists, I have an unquiet mind. I've had to be pragmatic about reshaping my process in recent years to accommodate the way my mind jumps from one idea to another very quickly. I'm also a huge perfectionist and a workaholic, so it's been a challenge to accept that sometimes we all need to slow down in order to speed up. I have a difficult time letting myself spend a day reading or watching movies, even though it's important for artists to allow themselves the time and space for creativity to flow. It's so hard to justify anything but constant production in New York City, where rents are exorbitant and time is at a premium.

What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
I've seen so many great shows in the past few years. It's hard to pick just one. Picabia at MOMA was phenomenal, as was Kerry James Marshall's Mastry at The Met Breuer. I've also been thinking a lot about Camille Henrot's 2015 exhibition at Metro Pictures. I'm so jealous of those self-help video phones.

What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
Listening to music is an important part of my studio practice, though my choice of music varies with my mood. I think it's important to bring other genres into the studio as I work. There's such a rich history of artists who make music and musicians who have been inspired by artists. I love Cosey Fanni Tutti's performance work and its relationship to the music she made. Sonic Youth's collaborations with Raymond Pettibon and Mike Kelley are sources of inspiration as well. I also sometimes listen to stand-up comedy while drawing.  

How do you interact with social media, both personally and professionally as an artist?
My relationship with social media continues to grow and evolve. Instagram is my platform of choice. It can be great for artists, but it also can fill one's head with a lot of unnecessary noise. So, finding balance is key.

Overall, though, I'm happy to have a platform for sharing my work and building a network. Recently, I've begun to use Instagram as a sort of studio diary. By sharing what I am reading/watching and the work that inspires me, I am cultivating my own voice and hopefully connecting with like-minded people. It's been a great way to sustain my energy in the studio.

Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I have a few drawings in an upcoming group show at a project space run by the artist Phillip Hinge. That exhibition opens on June 25. I also am contributing work to show called Group Portrait at Unisex Salon, an artist-run space in Williamsburg. That show opens on July 1. Additionally, I made aprotest sign that I carried at the Women's March in DC and will be turning that image into a tee-shirt as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. I hope to get those shirts out this summer.

Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!

To find out more about Allison and her work, check out her website.