Sweet ‘Art Interviews Evelyn Jean – by Charlotte Elliston

Sweet ‘Art has worked with and exhibited hundreds of amazing artists over the years. You’ll see their work on our social media and website, and if you are able to make it to some of our exhibitions, you’ll see their work in real life and maybe get to meet them.

We know that lots of our followers, readers, and friends aren’t able to come and see all of our exhibitions in person. You might have loads of questions about some of our artists, and their work. So we have decided to bring some of our wonderful artists to you – through the medium of blog! Over the next year or so, we will be talking to a varied selection of visual artists about their work and career and will be publishing the results right here.

First up, I went to meet Evelyn Jean in the Hawksmoor bar in Knightsbridge. Evelyn has been exhibiting in Sweet ‘Art shows for 5 years. His work first came to our attention when he entered our open submission for our Seams exhibition, and it has continued to intrigue  and excite us ever since.

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Artist Evelyn Jean

Evelyn Jean had an early creative influence in the form of his mother, who was a painter. However, like many of us when we are young, he wanted to be a “rock ‘n roll star” and his early career developed into a musical one. He was front man in a band which gathered a cult following, but found that the compromise needed when creating with a group of people left him unsatisfied artistically; having seen work by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, Evelyn was keen to introduce elements of performance art into his music, feeling that much of what he wanted to communicate with an audience was ‘unspoken’ and could (or should) not be easily communicated via the lyrics of a song.

From the world of music, Evelyn Jean first began his visual art career making films. You can view a selection of these on his website, and also informed me that these were part of a recent exhibition called L’Age D’Or at the Kunstkapel in Amsterdam. Watching the films at home, I can see his rejection of the verbal, as many of his films (which all feature himself as the main protagonists) are in the form of the early cinema’s silent films. The actor communicates emotion and plot via his facial expression and movement within the frame, whilst the soundtrack sets the mood and tone. I particularly enjoyed his film First Date which starts off as a light, humorous piece about a man falling in love with a mannequin – almost rom-com in tone (and yes, I AM a fan of 80’s classic Mannequin), then degenerates into a dark take on the Pygmalion myth, and finally ends as something more akin to Bride of Chucky. The fact that it draws on these filmic tropes to explore objectification and sexual violence towards women makes it an interesting piece for us Sweet ‘Arts. Evelyn says that he feels his films often come from a darker place than his paintings, dealing more directly with fear and trauma and expressing these as an actor as well as an artist.

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Still from First Date (2013)

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Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Image courtesy of The MET)

From his filmmaking, Evelyn then began to move towards painting. He has had no formal training in painting, he “just went to Cass Art, bought some canvas and paint and said let’s go!”. He says he found having no training difficult – isolated from the artworld and having no contacts, he almost gave up. (We are rather glad he didn’t). He says that drawing is only a very small part of his practice – unlike many artists, he doesn’t sit and sketch, and prefers to write. I find this interesting as text and words do seem key to his work, both in his films (where it is used either as subtitles at the bottom of the screen, or flashcards to introduce a scene) and paintings. In paintings such as Abandoned Parisian Rescue 79, the text ‘Please forgive me I can no longer live with my nerves’ is emblazoned across the top third of the canvas, whilst two (?) figures sit in the back seat of a car, possibly chased by a man with a torch. Are they running away from a sinister figure, or criminals being chased by the law? Does the text express their feelings, or ours? The painting comes from a series titled What is the Script and Evelyn Jean’s relationship to film, narrative and language can be seen throughout this series by his use of storytelling, framing and other filmic devices.

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Abandoned Parisian Rescue 79 (2017)

The play with language and text can also be seen in the unusual (and sometimes long) titles of this work. Evelyn says that the titles sometimes come before the painting and spark the idea to begin a new piece of work. The words can be drawn from the lyrics of a song, or even something like a sports interview, which seem relevant to another aspect of life. He says that he wants the titles of the work to help explain something of the painting, or the feelings behind it.

Lots of the titles of his earlier works are in French, which he studied for 5 years as part of a French Studies course at the Institut Francais and from this has a love of French new-wave cinema. He says that lack of confidence in the early stages of his career led to the use of the French language to title his work – he could say what he wanted to say but still remain hidden. The first work he submitted to us at Sweet ‘Art was the piece Je sais maintenant que le vie est pourrie. As none of us involved in the selections speaks French, the initial meaning was certainly hidden to us. I recall we then used Google translate to find out it means I now know that life sucks and felt the ‘Oh I get it’ moment of being included in the work.

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Je sais maintenant que le vie est pourrie (2014)

Much of Evelyn’s work explores themes of marginalisation. He says that he doesn’t like the way the artworld is headed and rejects the over-commodification of fine art. He sums up his thoughts on the art market as “white walls, white faces, white wine”, feels that gallery space has become completely unaffordable in London for artists looking to self-organise, and aims for his work to subtly critique this. He feels that, as a Londoner, his work should reflect the city and its diversity. He makes a conscious decision to paint all ethnicities he sees in his work, as there is lots of artwork (even contemporary art) displayed in London where everyone in the painting is white.

Evelyn defines himself as from a working-class background and would love to see art going in the direction where the people he grew up with would be interested in art. He feels that one of the issues art has is that it is either seen as street-art or art for rich people. His recently completed piece This is the Dizziness of Freedom shows the disconnect Evelyn sees in society today. The two sides of the painting show a factory and glass office towers overshadowing a terraced street, with a sports stadium at the end. The painting explores ideas of the fear of difference and change, the two opposing sides of the street representing the affluent middle classes (the businessman and the hipster) separated and looking across at the more ‘run-down’ houses where the black family and the pensioner live. He describes the stadium as representing the structures people build as a means of escapism from everyday lives and jobs they hate, but also acknowledges that people tie themselves down to avoid the fear of having too much choice.

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This is the Dizziness of Freedom (2018/19)

Sport is a surprising element which crops up as a recurring theme in Evelyn’s work. I say surprising, but am also sure that this stems from my own assumptions and prejudices, as why should artists not also have an interest in sport. He is a keen basketball fan, although doesn’t like sports culture. His piece They tell me that it’s real, then ask me how I feel? features a hairdresser or stylist trying different heads onto a body for size, while a basketball falls through a hoop. Evelyn says that the piece is about being unable to face reality, and wanted to emphasise the fragility of the heads by reflecting the size and shape of them with the falling basketball.

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They tell me that it’s real, then ask me how I feel? (2017/18)

With his work, Evelyn Jean hopes that the viewer is able to see aspects of their own life reflected back at them. He says that he aims to paint with emotion rather than technical brilliance, and hopes that this is that is communicated to the viewer. He says “If you see someone spending time with it, it leads a life of its own”

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Evelyn Jean’s work was also part of Sweet ‘Art’s Game Face exhibition in 2017

When I ask him what is coming next, he says he has ideas for some new work in the form of installations, although is limited by space in his studio (always a problem in London!). He also has plans to create some new film pieces and has just started work on a large painting titled The Death of the Novelist, inspired by the repeated questioning from the critics as to whether the ‘death’ of painting, art or the novel is due.

He will also be exhibiting work as part of the exhibition Art Can Presents: Encounters at the D Contemporary Gallery in Mayfair in May, where you will be able to see his piece This is the Dizziness of Freedom for yourselves.

Follow Evelyn on Twitter, Insta or his website http://www.evelynjean.com.

All images are copyright Evelyn Jean unless otherwise stated.