Defining Evans' Work
During the past 500 years, Western art historians and critics have promulgated the belief that the whole of global culture must be understood and appreciated in light of the European-American visual experience. As a result, any creative work that does not fit neatly within accepted aesthetic cannons becomes the battleground for conferring hierarchies of value, often by adopting pejorative categorizations.
Reviewing typical definitions of Minnie Evans’ work, for example, is a humbling experience. Evans’ work is significant, lyrical, moving and consistently engaging. Her style is frontal, hierarchic and full of personal symbolism that concurrently reflects her history, life, dreams and visions. In general, however, Evans’ work has been treated like some exotic, potentially “endangered species,” and segregated into special, protective niches that are outside of contemporary art history. The categories in which we place her drawings reveal a great deal about ourselves and the “optical illusion” of Western culture through which we view all art production.
During the last few decades, many have defined Evans’ work by using a variety of awkward terms in place of the word artist, such as Self-Taught, Art Brut, Compulsive Visionary, Outsider Art, Isolate, or Primitivist. None of these terms has been generally accepted, nor is any broad enough to include all aspects of Evans’ artistic production. They have relative value, however, in the insights they reveal into how we approach work which is different from our norm. The term Self-Taught, which is often used in conjunction with Evans’ work, privileges Western academic training and notions of illusionism over all other forms of learning. Evans may have been untutored in formal art-making, yet her work shows mastery over materials, intention, consistency and evolution – all signs of conscious creative production.
The term Art Brut was coined soon after the Second World War to describe commonalties between the work of intuitive artists (such as Evans) and work created by children and the insane. This patronizing point of view was recently reinforced in the exhibition Parallel Visions, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.1 The curators constructed a dialectic between the perceptual and conceptual art creation – the natural eye versus the mind’s eye - to equate the creative notations of psychotic people with the work of so-called compulsive visionary artists. This construct ignores the fact that virtually all artists have some inner, irresistible impulse to create. What is the difference between someone who is mandated to create because of a religious vision and someone personally driven to create because of an “aesthetic” vision? The term Art Brut also ignores the fact that work such as Evans’ demonstrates an innate knowledge of what art is – sense of proportional correctness, of how to express ideas through intelligible gesture, as well as conscious, willful intention.
Another contemporary term often used in reference to Minnie Evans’ work is Outsider Art, the paradox being that such work can only be so defined from the outside.2 This unfortunate distinction, like the word Primitivism, smacks of cultural colonialism, the “us vs. them” syndrome. It raises immediate questions of relative value: Who is the outsider? Who is the insider? Outside of what? Who decides what constitutes outside? Viewed from this perspective, work by artists like Evans is perceived as a curiosity rather than as a serious endeavor. It is romanticized as the production of an eccentric, lacking a conscious historical and contemporary context. By using this facile definition the work is not seen on its own terms or in its own context. A variation on Outsider Art is to term the work Isolate, implying that the creator is isolated from and ignorant of the tenets of “normal” life. Yet, every human being develops within some kind of contextual environment, with her/his own characteristics, memories, oral and visual histories. No matter how solitary a person is, she/he is never completely insulated from a larger community.
Evans’ highly conceptual work is not outside of or isolated from anything. It was formed within the definable context of an African American artist living in the rural South during the middle of the 20th century. Evans’ working context included, in addition to her rich imagination, an African American ancestral legacy, generational exposure to African antecedent forms of visual and aural expression (legends, rituals, myths, color and pattern use, etc.), and the symbolic music, teachings and practices of A.M.E. and Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist churches, where she attended services and occasionally spoke. She was aware of popular American culture through advertising and mass media, and she acknowledged a life-long interest in international mythologies.
The larger context in which Evans created her work may have been different from the “norm,” perhaps, but it certainly existed. Her awareness of traditional forms of art-making expanded when she worked as a domestic for a Wilmington family renowned for their collection of old master paintings. Evans often spoke of her deeply ingrained love of nature which was augmented by daily interaction during the years she worked as a groundskeeper in Wilmington. Like many other artists, including the more “mainstream” Claude Monet, Evans’ experience of nature was highly magical, spiritual and pantheistic as well as aesthetic.
Artists in all cultures have borrowed and appropriated from their contextual environments, whether aesthetic, historic, ethnic or familial/social. Many, like Evans, communicate their personal experiences and visions to the outside world through what Roger Manley termed “sharing the mystery.”3 In order to sympathetically interact with creative expressions that are different from what we know and expect, we must re-define our terminology and cultural vantage to include concurrent histories that have been ignored or rendered invisible. There is a vast multiplicity of ways that humans originate images and make them meaningful. It is time to abandon a linear perspective and single authoritative definition of what constitutes art. Global culture consists of myriad parallel directions, affiliations and interactions coexisting concurrently.
The current exhibition of Minnie Evans: Artist, presents the most comprehensive overview to date of her work. Evans’ creative production gives evidence of all the richness that defined her life, thoughts, visions and realities. Her productions are an aggregate of a life’s accumulation. In them, spiritually motivated motifs exist alongside specific characteristics from her daily world. Evans’ work is intensely personal yet contextually grounded, allowing us a brief, transcendent glimpse into the mind’s eye of another. In her oil, crayon and ink drawings, Evans combines a desire for deliverance from the physical limitations of life with an affirmation of the world as a place of majesty and mystery, envisioning and describing an alternate, highly personal world view.
“Now we dreams, we talk of heaven, we think everything is going to be white. But I believe that we’re going to have the beautiful rainbow colors. . .”4 -Minnie Evans
1 Although curator Maurice Tuchman stated in the catalogue that “insider and outsider works. . . will be displayed in such a way as to underscore our assertion that all of them are equally valid as art,” nonetheless the only ‘outsider’ or ‘compulsive visionary’ artists included in the Parallel Visions exhibition are those “whose work has been known to modern artists. . . figures whose works have entered into the dialogues of twentieth-century art history.” This reinforces that the norm, known as twentieth-century Western art history, is the appropriate basis against which all other work should be compared and judged.
2 David Maclagan, “Outsiders or Insiders?” in The Myth of Primitivism, London and New York: Routledge: 1991, p. 33.
3 Roger Manley, Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina, (The North Carolina Museum of Art): 1989, pp. 46 & 94-98.
4 quoted from an interview with Minnie Evans by Nina Howell Starr, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, 1960s as reproduced in Mitchell D. Kahan’s Heavenly Visions: The Art of Minnie Evans, Raleigh, North Carolina, (North Carolina Museum of Art), January 18-April 13, 1986, p. 9.
Bloemink, Barbara J., Open Eyed Dreaming. In Minnie Evans: Artist, Greenville, North Carolina, (Wellington B. Gray Gallery, East Carolina University), 1993: 9-10.