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.

‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’; a graphic take on the counterculture – by Sarah Kingham

‘Records and Rebels’ at the V&A applies their house style of curatorial ‘cluster-fuck’ to the 1967-70 period, when psychedelia ruled avant garde and pop culture, and mainstream media and advertising rushed to jump on the bandwagon. The aesthetic of the show is more; disparate objects clustered in arbitrary groupings, and headphones (previously utilised in the phenomenally successful ‘David Bowie Is’ show) releasing blasts of various music of the era as you approach the display cases. On one level, this jumble of sound, colour and imagery is justified as appropriate to the times; densely layered and vividly hued visuals were a signature of the graphic design work of the counter culture, as were collages of images or sounds in the arts, and multi-media ‘happenings’ that utilised light shows, sounds and performance.

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Unfortunately some of the connections are just too obvious or gauchely executed to be effective. In one of the several rooms devoted to protest inspired art and objects, Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’, the seminal Situationist attack on visually mediated culture, is displayed as a (presumably first edition) copy inside a gutted old fashioned television. As you approach this the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ blares through the headphones. It’s too gimmicky, too obvious, which is somehow disquieting; you can all too easily imagine a group of creatives around a table throwing out ideas; ‘radical’ exhibition as a precursor for a well-stocked gift shop (which of course there is). The tune ‘Revolution’ doesn’t even seem an appropriate choice, as the ambivalent lyrics advise the imagined young wannabe-revolutionary it addresses to change their head, not their surroundings; and that ‘if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow’. All of which makes this viewer (and listener) wonder if the show is even more vacuous (or possibly much cleverer) than it appears. Along with the crumpled fencing hanging from the ceiling alongside blow ups of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and Angela Davis (despite her commitment to Communism, I’m not sure how she would feel about sharing the space with Uncle Joe), it reads as a strangely garbled retelling of the preoccupations of the day.

Displayed alongside posters advocating gay rights, black power and women’s liberation, and protesting the Vietnam War, is an original, skimpy, costume from space-opera/sexploitation movie ‘Barbarella’, with a quote from director Roger Vadim claiming Barbarella’s disinhibited sexuality as a triumph not just of free love but for women generally. This juxtaposition of genuine politically engaged objects with a supposedly politically ‘justified’ relic of a piece of cult, pulp culture is rendered even more bizarre by its contrast with the other mannequin on display nearby, decked in a ‘recreation’ of a Black Panthers’ uniform of black leather jacket, beret, and trousers.

To be fair on the V&A, they are a design museum, and attempting to reify concepts, especially those as simultaneously charged and vague as ‘rebellion’ or ‘youth’ through objects is problematic at best. The pieces on show include relics of the era; the wicker, high backed chair Black Panther Huey Newton posed in as an armed and radicalised post-colonial African Prince; two of the Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper’ satin coats displayed in a re-creation of the album cover, disappointingly gaudy and hideous in the flesh. These share space with the ephemeral, mass produced art-meets-design of the album cover and poster, whether it be advertising a festival or sharing a political or philosophical sentiment.

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Huey Newton seated in wicker chair, 1967: photography attributed to Blair Stapp (shown here reprinted in contemporary poster)

Although the one of a kind objects have an and authenticity and the glamour of celebrity – though more ‘street style’ and less stage costumes and designer wear of the rich and famous might have been truer to a coherent vision of Rebels as well as Records – the strongest objects in the show are often the collisions between the avant garde, graphic design and countercultural and radical politics. Some, like the …and Babies anti-Vietnam poster on display, are so powerful and disturbing that 50 years on they are still painful to view, and hard to imagine living with as ‘decorative’ objects (albeit as serious displays of the political commitments of those who hung them), between pinups of Che and Dylan on the walls of squats and teenage bedrooms.

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‘And babies’ creaated by the AWC, a group of New York based artists whi oppsed the war, using an image of the My Lai Massacre taken by US combat photographer Ronald L. Heaberle in 1969, overlaid by a quote from an interview with US soldier Paul Meadlo who participated in the massacre.

Others show the cornucopia of influence, both on and by the alternative in the graphic arts. The historic inspiration, combining Fin de Siècle and Art Noveau swirls, Dada-like cut and paste and explosions of Victorian circus and Art Deco style lettering, rendered in vivid rainbows of colour is still recognisably present in current design and media.

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Alphons Mucha’s ‘Job’ rolling papers pin-up goes pshychadelic. Poster for Jim Kweskin Jug Band at the Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, 1966.

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The Acid Test, avertising late 1960’s happening, facilitated by Ken Kesey, by Californian artist and designer Wes Wilson.

These aesthetics are still with us today, as is that of the witty and politicised advertising and media style shown in images like Cramer/Saatchi’s 1969 ‘Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?’ campaign for the Family Planning Association.

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‘Would you be more careful it it was you that got pregnant?’, created by Alan Brooking, Bill Atherton and Jeremy Sinclair for Cremer Saatchi advertising agency, London, 1969.

There is plenty to enjoy here; the sheer exuberance of the graphic design’s elaborate and colourful detail is exhilarating, and the idealistic belief displayed in images and objects of protest is profoundly moving. There are contemporary photographs of protestors at the Pentagon, including a youth poking chrysanthemums into the muzzles of guardsmen’s rifles (the first recorded instance of this kind of protest, and the origin of the term ‘flower power’) and earnest young peaceniks in Grosvenor Square tussling with bobbies in capes and domed helmets, who despite their now endearingly anachronistic appearance seem to be dolling out some fairly brutal treatment. Iconic objects are plentiful; not just that photo of Christine Keeler, but also the contact sheets of the shoot, and the original Establishment club chair she straddled in the picture.

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‘Flower Power’ Antiwar demonstrators, Pentagon Building, 1967 by Bernie Boston.

Unfortunately, the combination of the high price of entry (£16 for a full price ticket), uncomfortably dense crowd, mostly of baby boomers, presumably here on a nostalgia trip, and the incoherent nature of the hang strikes a discordant note with the overarching vision of the era the show attempts to communicate. The mandatory gift shop, overflowing with overpriced objet tenuously linked to the era (and an admittedly cheap selection of reprinted protest badges) only serves to heighten this impression.

‘You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’ is open at the V&A, London until 26 February 2017

Sarah Kingham is a London based artist, writer and academic. Trained in art history, theory, and fine art, she is currently engaged in a Masters in Cultural and Critical studies at Birkbeck University.