Art: An artist's life with joyful, sensual color

2008: Bold black strokes, patch of purple.
2008: Bold black strokes, patch of purple. ("Godot Tree No. 3,")
Posted: April 08, 2012

By emphasizing color and light, the impressionists invented a way of painting that conveyed pure sensation. This is why critics of their time, startled by the sketchiness and chromatic intensity of their pictures, denounced them.

Posterity quickly proved the critics wrong; sensual painting prospered, to the point where it's probably the kind of painting today's audiences love best.

Mary Page Evans isn't an impressionist, but her work connects with that tradition through its hedonistic color. She's one of many painters who exploits the lyricism of color in nature, even exaggerating it in her landscapes to achieve a feverish level of emotional intensity.

As we see in her retrospective exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum, she punches up the emotional quotient of her art through expressionist brushwork, often slathering on broad, vigorous slashes and smears of juicy pigment.

Yet, as the show further reveals, she has over the last several decades developed several contrasting styles of working. Her paintings can be effusive or quiet, bright or somber, structured around drawing or more purely gestural.

Compositions can be tight or loose, small-scale or monumental, weighted toward representation or abstraction. The consistent note throughout her career is joyfulness and unalloyed sensual pleasure.

Evans, who will be 75 in two weeks, has lived in Delaware for nearly 50 years (her husband, Thomas B. Evans Jr., represented the state in Congress for three terms during the late 1970s and early '80s),

Yet the landscapes among the 45 works in the show mostly depict scenes in other places, such as her native Virginia, Monet's garden in Giverny, France, and the ocean on the eastern coast of Florida, where she now lives in winter.

Wilmington is represented by tightly framed views of flower gardens; the largest painting in the show, Arden II, submerges viewers in a dense mosaic of blossoms and foliage.

A native of Norfolk, Va., Evans eased into painting after studying music history at Hollins University in Roanoke. After graduation, she spent a summer attending drawing classes at the Art Students League of New York.

These and subsequent biographical tidbits come from an essay in the exhibition catalog by Philadelphia painter Bill Scott. When I first saw images of Evans' work, before I read the catalog, I thought immediately of Scott.

There's a strong affinity between his painting and hers, even though his is now primarily abstract. Evans paints from nature, but not descriptively. The degree of abstraction in her work varies according to subject and when the work was made.

Evans also studied with Wilmington painter Edward Loper and with painter and sculptor Tom Bostelle at his studio in nearby Pocopson. She was influenced by American abstract painter Joan Mitchell, whom she met after she began to spend time at Monet's studio and garden in Giverny.

The affinity with Mitchell, who lived near Giverny, is also apparent, particularly in two oils on paper inspired by Monet's lily pond, L'Etang II and L'Etang III. These flattened, compressed views on the pond's surface are all but totally abstract.

The exhibition breaks down generally into thematic groups of paintings. Among the earliest are floral effusions such as Sharps' Garden and Arden Garden.

The garden pictures include a dark and delightfully delicate pair of monotypes, each titled Dark Garden, in which Evans has suppressed her customary exuberance to work mainly in white, gray, black, dark green, and touches of purple.

By contrast, a group of five paintings of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains, made at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst County, explode with incendiary color and muscular gesture.

One topographical feature of these is Mount St. Angelo, which looms on the horizon like Cezanne's Mont Sainte- Victoire. Despite this obvious reference to the coolly analytical Cezanne, and Evans' admitted admiration for him, her landscape, with its turbulent energy, reminds one more of Chaim Soutine.

The five Shenandoah paintings might be just a tad over the top. Their improvisational disorder struggles against the natural progression of the landscape itself, particularly in the foregrounds. The pictures seem to be in a transitional state between concept and resolution.

I found myself far more partial to a suite of trees in which, unlike the aforementioned landscape, drawing plays a key structural role. Evans' paintings function most effectively when they contain a drawn element about which her luminous clouds of color can coalesce.

The epitome of such balance emerges in the paintings Godot Tree and Bowdark. In both, the trunk and branches of a leafless tree are set down in bold black strokes, which in Godot are immersed in a glorious patch of purplish hues that, incongruously, resembles a deep bruise.

In Bowdark, which hangs at the exhibition entrance, the colors are more earthy and subdued. But the depth of feeling in these pictures is more profound than in the Shenandoah landscapes, which, by contrast, seem a bit gaudy.

In the neighborhood of the trees, the show also includes a group of figures executed in charcoal, pastel, and mixed media, but I'm skipping over those because, frankly, they're too uncomfortably close to de Kooning.

The concluding section comprises a recent group of paintings made in Florida, mainly just sea, horizon, and sky, reminiscent of the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

In these, Evans switches her role model from Cezanne to John Constable, the master of clouds, or perhaps also Joseph M.W. Turner. The emotional temperature of her painting subsides dramatically, into a dreamy, contemplative mode.

Her intent is to observe and record shifting light and color of sky and sea over various times of day. This program is defined in a multipanel work called Weather Vane, 48 small oils on canvas board that catalog a myriad of atmospheric variations.

For the full effect, though, we turn to four large oils with wide skies and low horizons, which mix Turneresque haze with Constable's puffy cumuli.

Twilight is the most poetic of these; Dark Side is contrastingly schizophrenic, with Constable clouds in the upper register pitted against more raucous Shenandoah color at the bottom.

What the Florida pictures tell is that even in her mid-70s Evans continues to adapt her passion for nature into new channels of expression. Whatever reservations one might have about individual pictures, it's hard to gainsay a painter who engages her subject with such palpable commitment and affection.


Art: Painted Poetry

"The Art of Mary Page Evans" continues at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Pkwy., Wilmington, through July 15. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 Sundays. Admission is $12 general, $10 for visitors 60 and older, and $6 for students with valid ID and visitors 7 to 18. Free Sundays. Information: 302-571-9590, 866-232-3714 (toll-free) or www.delart.org.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or edward.sozanski@gmail.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.

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