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James Evans Is Making Monuments Out of Moments In “It’s Fun in The End”

James Evans has done it all. Originally hailing from Colorado, the Brooklyn-based artist has worked his way through an enviable laundry list of careers, from fashion to creative direction, all in only a handful of years in New York. Content creation at Opening Ceremony, clients like Adidas, design at Seventeen, you name it—at this point it’s no biggie for Evans, who takes it all in a characteristically calm stride. However hard-won his accomplishments are, though, for years they have taken a personal second place to his true passion: painting. This rings true so much so that several months ago he left his entire career behind to focus on painting full time, and has spent his days and nights methodically producing new and exciting work since.

Though Evans has tackled a number of subjects and styles during his maturation as an artist, he’s taken the period since leaving work to specifically focus his creative attention on the less glamorous side of life: the objects we all consume, and the stories left behind in our rush to live. Using increasingly large canvases and pulling from his history of text-based art, Evans’s latest body of work puts his own past on full display through a series of 48×48” (read: massive) oil paintings of commonly disposed of objects that, while ubiquitous and relatable, represent distinct moments in his life.

We caught up with Evans in the days leading up to his latest solo show to talk about his vision and process for this buzz-worthy new series.

So, tell me about your latest show.

The new show at Spring Place is called It’s Fun in the End, and I’ve been working on it for the last six or seven months. It’s a collection largely based around discarded objects that I’ve worked a narrative into—they’re all one-use items, or something that had a specific function which has since lapsed. I typically paint at a large scale, but the subjects are all very small objects, whether it’s a drug baggie or a condom wrapper. I think that’s an interesting dynamic and one which you can only really get in person, so I’m excited to have them showing all at once.

How would you describe the style of your painting to someone new to your work?

I should start by saying I hate the word “photorealistic”. I really dislike that term because I figure if something is photorealistic, why isn’t it just a photograph? That said, I suppose that is what you could classify some of my work as as. My whole thing, though, is that I’ll focus on an ordinary object, but I’ll tweak the context of it. I’ll tweak the text, I’ll tweak an image inside it, and still have it resemble the initial image so it’s instantly recognizable but has a different meaning.

Writing is also an integral part of my process, and I pull phrases from the environment around me. The images themselves, too, are things that are in my life that I’ve personally used. I don’t want it to just be “Hey, here’s a beer can”—it’s something I drank on this night. This is a condom wrapper that was used. This is a drug baggie from a shitty bar in Bushwick. Everything has a story and that’s a crucial part of my work.

Interesting. Do you intend on letting viewers know what that specific story is?

I don’t. I don’t like it when you’re told what to feel from something, and so even though the text all carries weight with me and every piece has a very specific meaning, it’s meant to be general enough that it can represent anything to anyone. I don’t think you should ever really feel the hand of the author. It weirds me out when a work of art—whatever the medium—feels too manipulative. So, even though a piece might have a very loaded meaning, it’s meant to be vague enough that it’s something different to anyone who looks at it.

For example, the piece I just finished is a painting of an antidepressant that I got off five or six years ago, and I’ve just held onto the pill bottle this whole time. For awhile I kind of wrestled with the question: Should I be clear that it’s an antidepressant bottle, or not? I have a very particular history with it; that drug had a big impact on my life. In the end, I deliberately decided to keep that part anonymous. I didn’t say what it was, but I know what it is and the people who know me know what it is. Ultimately, we all have an experience with a prescription bottle, and this piece is meant to be something that we all understand in our own different contexts.

That makes sense. I noticed that one of the pieces in your collection [Do You, or Don’t You] is distinctly more abstract than the others. Can you talk about branching out from, well… photorealism?

The idea of photorealism is something that I’m constantly trying to push out of, and [that painting] sort of just happened organically. For that piece in particular, I think it’s an interesting visual dynamic to add an extra layer and have a strong shape on top to direct the eye. There’s an energy to it, and there’s something about a circle—a red circle—that’s aggressive but grounded. I honestly haven’t figured out what that means to me, but I know it means something [Laughs]. It’s an idea that moving forward I think I’m actually going to explore a lot more.

It’s interesting that you can still be trying to figure out what a painting means even if you’ve spent upwards of several weeks working on it.

Yes! Especially because there’s so much time spent on the image beforehand. I will have the actual object, and then I’ll go through various treatments, and then I’ll figure out the text, and then I’ll be ready. By the time I get to painting, everything’s largely figured out. But, there can still a big component that I don’t know, and that goes back to why I think it’s important to not be too heavy handed with what you say. It has to be open to interpretation because if you know exactly what you’re doing the whole time it’s not quite so fun. If there’s some ambiguity in the meaning, it’s something you can learn more about as you make it.

Can you talk about your selection process for the objects you ultimately choose to spend several weeks working on start to finish?

Ya, it drives you a bit crazy staring at the same object for a very long time…

Are you ever going to drink a Sapporo ever again?

Exactly. Well, when choosing objects… again, they each have a specific backstory. That Sapporo for example, that was from Shinjuku. I drank it there, stomped it, brought it back to Brooklyn, and painted it here. I was also rereading a Roberto Bolaño book at the time, which is where the text in the painting comes from. I was working through a lot of shit mentally then and for me the can had to be from there, and that specific text belonged in it. That is how the objects are selected—they all meant something to me at a certain time. A lot changed in my life in this last year, and that is all reflected in the objects themselves.

It sounds like you’ve used these paintings to sit with and process a lot of personal stuff. Now that you’re showing them, are you really emotionally ready to let them go to a buyer?

The paintings? I don’t know, honestly. They’re super personal, and the act of painting and working through something like that is so cathartic. If you make something to process something you’re going through, even if you’re trying to speak to a broader audience, there’s something about sharing that’s kind of scary, I think. I don’t know if I’m ready to let them go, but that’s the nature of an object… and that’s kind of the whole point. These are things that essentially serve one function and after they’re used there is no more utility. However, the moment they had, the emotion that they conveyed, and your memories—that lingers on. And so, I guess if you look at it on that level, yes… they can go. They’re transient things.

It’s Fun in the End is showing at Spring Place in New York on February 20th. To see more of James’s work or to purchase prints, check out his website.

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists on the rise.

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