Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Guest Review of Cliff Evans' Empyrean @ The Library

Guest Review By Alex Mudge of Aural States
Since Cliff Evans strives to synthesize two seemingly unrelated styles—Northern Renaissance devotional painting, and present day multi-channel digital video— into one cohesive whole, any venture to further understand his work (here the focus is Empyrean, and The Dead Father and His Dother: Snake/Revival from the current show at The Library) must, likewise, find a critical synergy between these two modes of art making.

If Evans makes art using the conventions of the Northern Renaissance, then it follows that one must, at least partially, follow those same conventions when weighing in critically on his work. And to begin with a quick analysis of Northern Renaissance Art, here is a quote from a Florentine artist of some measure of fame, to say the least:

    Flemish painting, slowly answered the painter, will generally speaking, Signora, please the devout better than any painting of Italy, which will never cause him to shed a tear, whereas that of Flanders will cause him to shed many…In Flanders they paint with a view to external exactness or such things as may cheer you and of which you cannot speak ill, as for example saints and prophets…And I do not speak ill of Flemish painting because it is all bad, but because it attempts to do so many things well (each one of which would suffice for greatness) that it does none well.

These were the words Michelangelo spoke to Vittori Colonna, as recorded by Francisco de Hollanda in his De Pintura Antigua, 1548. The three main points to take away from this passage, in relations to Northern European art are: it devotional aspect; it’s preoccupation with exact, meticulous detail; and drive toward maximization and grandeur. These points can easily be applied to Empyrean.

Empyrean--so this is Evans’ Highest Heaven, the luminous region just beyond the spheres, the dwelling place of Fire & God according to archaic cosmologies. This word, itself, demonstrates that Evans is at least conversant in Medieval and Early Renaissance Christian beliefs. That is if we already didn’t get the picture, so to speak, with the five-panel polyptych allusion to the, also, five-paneled Altarpiece of the Lamb, by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

True to old belief Evans’ Empyrean is luminous, glowing, and radiant. One might be struck, though, that the panels are not the actual source of light, as the true Empyrean would be. Jan van Eyck did not have the technology to create light beaming out from the surface of his paintings; he could only apply more layers of varnish to reflect light from natural sources. So, in that way Evans’ stays true to the limitation of the old Northern Renaissance painters.

The Empyrean is the dwelling place of God and the blessed. It is the region beyond physical existence. Here Dante describes the souls of the believers laid out as pedals in a giant rose with a luminous God at the center. However, Evan’s Empyrean also interjects the carnal, the base, the grotesque, and the sinful. At this point, Hieronymus Bosch’s presence in the piece is inescapable. The chimera that swoops in toward the viewer to send the narrative in the last “scene” seals the deal, as far as possible Bosch influences goes.

Evans’ sharpest, and most apparent divergence from the past is the use of popular culture iconography rather than the Roman Catholic. The iconography must be near universally understood, and the meaning of a woman holding a wheel would be lost on the secular viewers of today. However, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are as recognizable as the saints once were. Though ever-present imagery in our society, the meaning of Angelina Jolie on a camel holding a UN flag is somewhat more obscured than were the conventional symbols of the saints. Despite the inevitable familiarity of the imagery, the context of those images, and perhaps their meaning as well, is disrupted.

To come back to Bosch, it is as if Evans took the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, but rather than show the carnal physical existence, and its consequence (Hell), Evans blurs the two. Unlike the two peripheral interior panels of Bosch’s most famous work (one being Eden, the other being the tortures of Hell) no panel describes a Paradise, in the traditional sense, but neither specifically a Hell.

A desert landscape persists throughout the work, though never specific enough to be pinpointed to one exact region. Instead, it calls to mind a multiplicity of areas: The Holy Land (coincidently the Crucifixion of Christ can no longer take place on the hill—Golgotha--because the hill has been developed, and now resembles the Hollywood Hills); Iraq, the American South West, or more often than not, a mythic barren desert devoid of true life, populated only be mass culture images (mirages perhaps!)

One of the more ominous images from the work is that of US soldiers and Marines patrolling. They carry themselves in the “low alert position”—finger on the trigger, but the rifle held at waist level, and pointed down—“Eyes alert, muzzle to the dirt!” is the saying. This is the at-ready stance they are trained to remain in on patrol, a time when threats are swirling about them, but have not yet outright presented themselves. Interesting enough, these soldiers and Marines (Evans mixes the two together at some points, an unrealistic detail) are threatened not only by would-be Jihadists, but celebrities, and the like.

In juxtaposition to the threatening, Oakley wearing, camo-Kevlar decked-out military personal (most in what could be called “jock intimidation mode”) a rather dorky, bespectacled civilian (a contractor one would assume) appears in a helmet, and bulletproof vest as well. However, rather than causing any form of intimidation in the viewer, he comes across as a middle-age man “playing army.”

As with altarpieces of the 15th centaury the images are almost too much to take in at once, and, in fact one assumes that is part of the point.

Is this the Paradise of the early 21st centaury? To what level is Evans being ironic, if at all? Perhaps the key to understanding like questions is that fact the mock altarpiece was in its open configuration. This setting only occurred on certain celebratory days during the Catholic calendar. Whatever the meaning behind Evans’ images, they are definitely being exulted, for better or for worse.

If Empyrean is meant to call to mind the altarpieces of the Northern Renaissance, then The Dead Father and His Dother: Snake/Revival calls to mind the folding miniatures (often a portrait of the person behind the commission, and a saint) meant to inspire devotion during the viewer’s prayers.

Here the reader should be reminded of the certain strain of devotion in Northern Europe that developed from highly personal, near mystical ideals of Devotio moderna. From this tradition came such things as the Vesperbild, roughly pieces meant to sweep away the viewer with such scenes of religious agony as to inspire devotion, or the tears of the pious as Michelangelo mentioned above.

Quit literally with The Dead Father… we get a play on the typical Vesperbild scene (essentially a Pieta—Mary lamenting the death of the Son, with his body draped over her lap). Here the “Father” is dead, and the “Dother,” a nonsense word, but one that calls to mind many similar words, is not ultimately clear as to what it is. However, we do see a bearded man crying, not just any tears, but both tears of blood, from one eye, and tears of semen, or milk (one would think the best bet is semen, always bet on the semen) from the other eye. He tightens his lips in agony, while a bevy of disquieting images flash around him. These tears are the end goal of the Verperbild.

Cleverly, the prime reason behind this beard man’s unnatural tears are never disclosed. As with the miniature diptychs, we are meant to look in and see ourselves, and perhaps, be reminded of our past grief, and the pains yet to come.

Some have pointed toward Evans’ statement about the Logos degenerating into clichés to understand this piece. For that, I answer with D. H. Lawrence’s admonition to trust the tale not the teller, or in this case the work, not the program notes. Though, I believe that all artists bear a grudge that most Western creation myths begin with the Logos, not the image.

Perhaps the agon between pure image and meaning (words) is the best way to understand Evans’ grand Empyrean—it is a world created in the beginning with the image. The image is the word, and the sole meaning in this High Heaven of Images.

The show will be on view at The Library, 1401 Light Street, through November 22, 2008.