- Bend in the River
- North East England
Paul Evans’ Leviathan, sited within the imposing central aisle of a vast deconsecrated space known as the x-church, offers the viewer a breathtaking experience; not only an experience of art as true, jaw-dropping, exhilarating spectacle, but also art as a unique mechanism by which to measure oneself up against one of the mightiest (and strangest) products of evolutionary process. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a life sized drawing of a diving sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) that measures 10m from top to foot – the exact same height as that of an Olympic diving board. Thus the artist, using a very deliberate choice of measurement, plays with our understanding of the scale of human experience through direct comparison with one of our largest mammalian relatives.
When contemplating this drawing one is inevitably drawn to notions of the sublime and, where much contemporary art practice steers clear of any bold and risky flirtation with this difficult idea, Evans’ installation of drawings meets those big, and frankly rather scary, issues: otherness, terrifying mass and natural danger, head on and with remarkable surety and aplomb. The drawings also include skilful renderings of vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis – one of the sperm whale’s principle prey species) and, tellingly given the nature of the installation as ‘spectacle’, a drawing of the artist’s own retina occupying a position directly opposite the whale and perhaps taking a symbolic position for the human, sentient gaze. During the opening event there were poignant readings performed by two Gregory Award winning poets: Chris Jones and Matthew Clegg. These readings had the effect of gradually broadening and extending the field of reference and allusion so that it spanned from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, through Melville’s Moby Dick to the contemporary musings of Kathleen Jamie. This gave the backdrop image of the whale a shifting, fluid waterscape of old and new ideas – chiefly regarding our emotional relationship with nature – through which to swim. During the readings the symbolic attributes of the whale shifted accordingly: from demon to nemesis to symbol of life and hope. Even the extreme cold experienced within the venue (the temperature in the x-church never rose above 2 degrees centigrade during the period of exhibition) added to the context of the work, taking the viewer far out of the human comfort zone.
With the drawing occupying a position previously occupied by the martyred Christ, Leviathan makes a bold and highly impassioned statement that clearly follows from the artist’s ideas of secularising the Christian notion of ‘witness’.
In keeping with these notions of the secular sublime, Leviathan clearly references the language of abstract expressionism, probably the last significant art movement with the confidence to address this psychological/philosophical territory. Like Jackson Pollock (another artist obsessed with drawing and who also made titular references to Moby Dick in his work) Evans has worked on the floor to create Leviathan and, when seen close up, the surface clearly echoes that urgent transparency of mark-making that can be seen in Pollock and other exuberant draughtsmen such as Wols and Soulages. There is a great vitality within the drawing and an almost sculptural approach to the graphite from which the image was made – marks from the eraser chop into the surface almost like stoneworkers tools into marble. Leviathan is a true ‘graven image’ in other words.
Or, as one viewer put it, as her child ran up excitedly to get a closer look, “wow – that’s amazing!”
What better response to a work of art could you humanly ask for?
Leviathan is part 1 of Origin 09, a series of ambitious drawing projects that will take place across the UK during 2009. More details can be found at www.Origin09.org