HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: On Evan Paul English’s CAMOUFLAGED, An Essay by Liza Coviello

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: On Evan Paul English’s CAMOUFLAGED

An Essay by Liza Coviello

When discussing his work, Evan Paul English often refers to the relationship between public and private. He uses terms like exposed and veiled, as though the process of painting self-portraits at once reveals more of himself than he might be comfortable with, and results in a kind of artifice that diverts attention from his private self as the subject. This tension between two seemingly opposing themes is at the heart of this exhibition that explores understanding of the self in relation to notions of home, sexuality, and the art historical canon. Though English’s work is initially striking because of its beauty, it is arresting because English presents this beauty in concert with a challenge to it. Often through the use of mixed media, English has gathered a selection of objects – two self-portraits, a wall painting, a sculpture, and a paint-by-number – that envision subjects that are complex and contradictory.

English has made extensive use of his body as model, and included in the exhibition are only two of many self-portraits he has produced over the course of the last several years. Throughout a career, most painters resort to self-portraiture to hone their craft. It is, after all, a product of making use of what resources are at the ready, inexpensive, and – often – private. The practicality of self-portraiture is so intrinsic that it should come as no surprise that successful painters may have a rather large collection of this type of painting. In this way, his practice recalls those of Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo – artists whose almost compulsive self-portrayals were in large part a way for the artist to make sense of their own experience. Van Gogh’s semi-annual self-portraits were a study of his ever-changing features. For Kahlo, who imbued her portraits with references to very personal trials, the paintings were at once a healing process and an airing of grievances. Both Van Gogh and Kahlo addressed topics that simply were not discussed publicly. English’s self-portraits, which are imbued with sexuality, allow him the same freedom to discuss his sexuality without ever speaking a word about it.

An important historical self-portrait that speaks to one artist’s style as the full embodiment of public and private is that of Camouflage Self-Portrait by Andy Warhol. A photographic portrait of the artist is overlaid with a vibrant pink and red camouflage in a nod towards the idea of hiding in plain sight. Famously enigmatic, Warhol discussed the connection between his work and himself in terms that highlight an ambiguous relationship between the artist and his own self-representation: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”[1] English also describes his work as an extension, and obfuscation, of himself: the veiling of his self-portraits with objects is akin to how “as a queer person I feel like the clothes I wear are a sort of veil that covers my identity and intricacies.”

CamouflageSelfPortrait

Andy Warhol, Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986

It is therefore no surprise that English’s work recalls Warhol, or that that the artist also counts Robert Gober as a primary influence. English’s appreciation for Gober is in part due to how Gober utilizes objects that are seemingly generic, but never random. Each of the objects that Gober places in his room installations, though they may appear to be manufactured or commercially produced, are individually made by the artist. English has suggested that this hand-crafting of each item – newspapers, sinks, boxes of rat poison, etcetera – rather than incorporating the readily available and/or commercial version, makes the work seem more personal. English feels that a huge amount of care was given to this installation, as recreating an object has somehow increased the amount of significance it has for the viewer. The four walls that enclose Gober’s much more large-scale installation Untitled (1992) are covered in a large paint-by-number forest scene. Though the forest scene is beautiful, the paint-by-number framework, the sinks, the bars on the windows, and other objects which punctuate the room – all of which one notices only after admiring the forest scene – undercut the sheer beauty of the painting.

Untitled1992

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1992

In the curatorial essay for The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, the 2014 Gober retrospective at MoMA, Ann Temkin wrote that the objects Gober reproduces in his work “indulge the artist’s predilection for the lost or discarded, and elevate to art things discovered on the street…For Gober these are significant rescue operations…Humble origins are ennobled and abandonment is transformed into the possibility of love.”[2] English found the piece of fencing that became Greener Grass on the street in Brooklyn, and he recalls being stuck by it not only because it seemed uncommon to find something like this on a Brooklyn sidewalk, but also out of place because it was identical to the one at his parents’ home in Idaho. Whereas for some, a wooden fence is something associated with a heteronormative, capitalist ideal of the classic American middle class family home, for English – someone who has never thought of himself within heterosexual norms – it represented the artifice of a problematic understanding of what one should, or should not, aspire to. By cross-stitching sections of it with brightly colored yarns, he presents a challenge to the brand of masculinity associated with the mythology of the American Dream by disrupting this symbol of normative success with a soft material traditionally associated with the feminine.

English often deploys traditional signifiers of sexuality and gender within his work to present a challenge to normative understandings of both. Having grown up surrounded by antiques and decorative objects, he claims to have a profound distaste for the traditionalism of Americana – of these objects that represent a traditional sense of home – and yet he incorporates these Midwestern kitsch items and aesthetics in his work.[3] This quality in his work and his interpretations of it are perhaps indicative of the fact that he cherishes his past but refuses to be bound by it. Yet, his declared distaste for the ideals embedded in objects such as antiques are perhaps also indicative of a pervasive fear of the hostility to queerness within the Heartland. This work appears in some ways to skirt sexuality – a result very likely that stems from having grown up in Idaho, without proximal queer role models and outlets for working through the difficulties specific to queer youth.

TrophyGame

Evan Paul English, Trophy Game, 2015

English references his opposition to traditionalism, to being a target, and to queer self-representation by including in the show his own paint-by-number: Trophy Game – an image of a deer in a woodland scene and formalized with a narrow, wooden frame. The eye is drawn directly to the center of the painting wherein lies a hole, emanating from which is a circle of pink spray paint that then drips downward and off the painting onto the wall. The obvious allusion is to hunting. Yet, the hot pink trail of “blood” is as unusual as it is significant here – it connotes a stark opposition to the aesthetic underneath it. This work speaks to his feelings of being both in stark opposition to that around him and also, to being a target – whether due to being an artist with works on display for public consumption, or for being a gay man in a society where homosexuality is a constant public/political topic of conversation.

There is a long-standing resonance between queer self-expression and pain, whether that pain is existential, physical, or both. At times, English’s work recalls that of Egon Schiele – an Austrian figurative painter from the early 20th century. Schiele’s psychological linkage between sexuality and mortality – which stemmed from his father, who died from Syphilis while Schiele was young – is expressly visible within his paintings, as is the angst that this personal struggle caused him. As both English and Schiele have painted themselves in provocative ways, they have opened a window in their own disparate times that may force a conversation about sexual conventions. Yet, both of their paintings have mastered a maturity that explores their entire personality, rather than just the often more primitive nature of sexuality.

SelfPortraitWithLoweredHead

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Lowered Head, 1912

English’s self-portraits are where his most powerful and complex ideas surface. His multimedia constructions of his own likeness are, like his paint by numbers, born of an understanding of himself that is not in complete harmony with the world around him. Yet in his paintings, this disharmony turns in on itself to move into new directions in which different elements – whether they are material, or conceptual – can exist in a productive tension, like the cross stitching on the fence. English’s self-portraits, heavily textured and often featuring some dramatic twist on normative portraiture (the artist sexualized, for instance, or staring defiantly down his nose at the viewer), constantly reposition the subject in ways that defy standard representation. But – and more powerfully – they also challenge the viewer to assume new roles. We, English’s audience, gain access to the intimacy of a lover, or are subjected to his challenging gaze.

In the harmony of colors, soft transitions, and gathered elements in the combine paintings, as well as the juxtaposition of elements in the sculptural pieces, English has created works so broadly aesthetically pleasing as to distract the viewer from their deeper meanings. Yet beyond the aesthetics, when the viewer has a moment to absorb the content on a more conscious level, one is likely to find a connection to complex relationship between objects and personal history. With an attempt by the artist to confront subjects that are the most difficult for him and by the incorporation of references to a love/hate relationship with the past, it seems that he has found a route for analyzing and addressing the private in public.

 

About the Author:

Liza Coviello is a Philadelphia-based arts administrator working for the Institute of Contemporary Art and as an independent curator for NAPOLEON. Her undergraduate degree is in Fine Arts, focusing on ceramics and art history, and her graduate degree is in Non-profit Leadership. Her curatorial interests are heavily concentrated in issues of social responsibility, justice, and reform.

 

[1] Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Andy Warhol (Berlin: Gerd Fleischmann, 1969), n.p.

[2] Ann Temkin. Robert Gober: An Invitation. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art: 2014.) https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/publication_pdf/3206/MoMA_Gober_PREVIEW.pdf

[3] Coviello, Liza. Interview with Evan Paul English. Email. January 13, 2016. His mother collected antiques and though he loved the delicate and care-given objects that cluttered the spaces of his childhood, “they represent a kind of traditionalism that I’m so opposed to.”

To download a PDF version of this essay, click English_Coviello_Feb_2016

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