In Conversation with Evan Gilbert
Evan Gilbert (b. 1993) is an emerging artist from Miami, Florida and he is currently living and working in Brooklyn, NY. The young artist received his MFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design in 2019. Gilbert’s works depict ethereal figurative forms emerging out of organic celestial concoctions that draw the viewers in his mysterious painterly universe. By synthesizing heavenly and mystical imagery, Gilbert’s work signifies a complex pattern of symbolic connections between the recurring palette and uncanny characters seen throughout his oeuvre.
What inspired you to become an artist?
I don’t think anything, in particular, inspired me to make art. I was an obsessive drawer from a young age and I grew up in an environment where I was encouraged to continue making art. It just became part of my daily life.
Why do you think painting is the best medium for you to communicate your artistic vision?
Painting can be both immediate and painstakingly slow. It’s not like drawing where an image can pop into your head and quickly be described on paper. Sometimes, you get lucky and capture what you’re looking for in the first sitting but that rarely happens for me. The majority of what I paint is completely invented and rarely has a reference. I may look at a lot of Images beforehand or make a drawing but I never reference either once I’ve started the actual painting. What the painting allows for me that my drawings can’t, is the ability to take the raw idea or image and kind of walk around inside of it. You know you end up finding things within the material itself to further elaborate on with each layer. You start with one thing and over time you lose the image and pull it back and in the end, you surprise yourself with the final product. If you’re lucky it’s closer to what you had in mind than your original intent. It’s this slow unveiling I think that excites me most while painting and fits the emotive and thematic qualities of my work.
Who are some of your greatest artistic inspirations and why?
Early on, I can remember looking through my dad’s old underground comics from the 1960’s such as S. Clay Wilson, R Crumb, Spain Rodriguez from Zap Comix, and that had a huge impact on me. In my early teens, I started looking at books on Surrealism and Dada. I remember being a little kid and looking at the poster of Salvador Dali’s “ The Hallucinogenic Toreador” in my mom’s house. I still regularly see elements of that specific painting in my work today.
The pandemic has been a major source of inspiration for your new work. At what point did you decide to translate your feelings associated with the pandemic into your art and why? What are some of your other sources of inspiration?
I didn’t exactly have any intention of translating my feelings related to the pandemic into my work but over time, it just ended up in the work. Early in the pandemic, I spent all day and night in my studio and most of the newer work sprang from the first few paintings I made during this time. The pandemic made me reflect a lot on the nature of viruses and disease and their spread. The idea that such a small living thing like a virus can spread across the globe so quickly while being terrifying and heartbreaking showed to me that biological connectedness I was exploring in the work. Even the rhetoric and social/political language over the past few years have spread like a virus-like some kind of psychic epidemic spread through language. I was trying to take something ugly and horrific and explore beauty and transformation within that horrific space.
Music, Film, and books also had a lot of impact on my work. Going back to the stuff that affected me most when I was younger, bands and musicians like Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Aaron Dilloway, and free jazz artists like Sonny Sharrock and Sun Ra excited me. They all changed my idea of what sound, music, and art can be, and cut up and reinvented the conventions of what all those things are, by creating something new in the process of restructuring and rebuilding. I’ve always tried to implement this idea of endless experimentation and exploration through improvisation in my work. Sci-fi and horror films from the 70s- early 90s have always been a big part of my life, specifically Cronenberg and Films like Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and Ken Russell’s Altered States. These body horror films relate to my work a lot and I enjoy the blending of myth and monotony of everyday life. In terms of books, I recently read books of Sharon Olds poems called Satan Says, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicles. I’m also a big reader of independent comics, artists like Michael Deforge, Jessie Moynihan, Jesse Jacobs, and Daniel Clowes all make work that I take a lot of inspiration from.
You have said that you like to “work with tradition while simultaneously mocking it.” When did this tendency come about in your art and why is it important to you to employ visual riddles in your paintings?
I think this may relate more to older works of mine, as they were more descriptive and almost cartoonish, but it’s still something I think about a lot in the studio. Painting is probably the most traditional art practice, but to me, all the best painters have some sense of self-awareness of this tradition and its potentially restrictive and toxic nature. Painting has and continues to glorify, idealize and fetishize viewpoints and subjects. I try to avoid idealizing and glorifying the subjects or even the tradition itself. That’s part of my interest in themes of mutation or transformation; everything is in a state of becoming rather than a fully polished idealized form. I’ve also been trying to explore how light functions in paintings. Traditionally figure paintings have some kind of clear exterior light source emanating from beyond the image, which to me signified a controlling force governing the image. I try to have the light source become an interior one that flows between the inside of each figure, trying to create some sense of individual autonomy in each form while being part of a larger network of light. They all influence each other but there’s no singular outside source governing them. That’s probably not something that’s clear but is more something for me to imbed into the work and expound upon in the process of painting.
What kind of societal and personal pathologies do you feel that you have exposed through your works? How and why does your work employ “visual disruption” that you have talked about previously?
I think just the nature of influence is maybe the main societal and personal pathology being explored in the work. Since they have become so atmospheric and biological, they can be read as descriptions of chemical reactions. This plays into the idea of visual disruption, some of the figures appear to be dissolving into some kind of resonating field and reforming as something new. Rather than a solid form they dispersed into something between a color field painting and a microscopic image while maintaining a clear relation to the body.
When looking at your paintings the Surrealists come to mind, like Max Ernst and his decalcomania technique. Is this something that inspires you? Would you describe yourself as a 21st-century Surrealist?
Max Ernst was a very early influence, I do something similar to his decalcomania technique. For him, he would use a piece of glass or paper placed and peeled off the surface of a wet painting as a way of finding new images and textures to describe. When I start a painting, I’ll take a palette knife and scrape layers of very thin paint all over the canvas surface making an abstract image of color blocks, then take a rag and remove the paint until the separate blocks are unified. Through the process, I’ll find figures in this first layer and have a clear idea of what and where I want the figures to be. I wouldn’t consider myself a 21st century surrealist since a lot of the origins of surrealist thought are centered around the juxtaposition of images and dream imagery. While my work definitely is influenced and visually similar to these themes, I think it’s more rooted in the biological and physical world even when it seems completely ethereal and otherworldly.
You grew up in Miami, went to school in Boston and Rhode Island, and are now living and working in Brooklyn. Do you draw inspiration from each place and your environment in general?
I can see how growing up in South Florida affects my work. I grew up fishing and snorkeling and generally being outside or by the water. My grandfather would show me how to draw various animals native to South Florida, specifically fish and birds. There’s a lot of pattern and texture in my work that resembles the skin of a fish or some other aquatic life which is unintentional but has been brought to my attention by numerous people. Sometimes the way figures dissolve in the paintings resembles the way light travels through algae or seaweed. The natural world of South Florida is pretty unique, it’s very prehistoric looking and some of the animals themselves are pretty alien. I love the way it looks there but couldn’t ever live there again. Moving from Miami to Boston was a pretty big culture shock, I hadn’t spent any time outside of Florida before moving and had also never experienced any change of seasons. I enjoyed old gothic New England architecture but otherwise, not as exciting as the tropical landscape of Miami. Providence is a haunted city. There’s just a general spookiness to the place that I enjoy. It’s the hometown of H.P. Lovecraft that says it all for me. Even though I had spent no time in Rhode Island before moving, I felt comfortable in that atmosphere and that old haunted feeling is something I’ve always been drawn to. As for New York, I’ve been visiting for years before moving, it’s mainly just where a lot of my close friends ended up and there’s an endless amount of art to be seen. It’s always changing and growing. I find that the most inspiring thing about it. It’s very much alive and moving at all times.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned from your career as an artist? What do you want people to take away from your art after they experience It? Is this something that you keep in mind when you are creating new works?
I guess in terms of what I’ve learned I’d say it comes more from making the work and talking about it with other artists. When you spend most of your free time in your life making something you learn a lot about yourself, what your intentions and desires are, also what you think you want isn’t exactly what you want or need. A lot of the best things I’ve made just kind of appeared on their own separate but related to my initial intention, I like that feeling of working passionately on something that can over time show you something you didn’t know you knew. I think that’s what I want people to get from the works. I try to think as little as possible and just go for it while painting.
You are a young artist. What are your goals for your career ahead of you?
To keep experimenting and finding new ways of making an image.
What is your favorite piece that you have on display at Shin Haus and why?
I think the painting titled “Hatchling” is one of my favorites. It started as a very defined image of several figures then it fell apart in the process and ended up somewhere totally unexpected and almost impossible for me to recreate again. That was exciting. That’s what I’m always after.
What has been your proudest moment as an artist so far and why?
Shortly after finishing grad school, I had a solo show at a gallery in Paris called Ciaccia Levi and was generously flown out and put up for several nights. I had never left the country before so being able to do so based on the work I make, was a great feeling. It’s rewarding knowing people are interested or moved by your work and that it has the potential to bring you somewhere new.
Do you have any new or upcoming projects that you are working on?
Just to keep painting.
“Nest Unfolding in Light” is on view at Shin Gallery through February 5, 2022.