An artist returns home to Appalachia

LOUISVILLE, KY – Much has been said about Appalachia during the last years, often mean, and often by people who haven’t spent much time (if any) in the sprawling and diverse region. But the nine paintings that form the heart of the exhibition Ceirra Evans: It’s good to be home at the Moremen Gallery offer a more complex and generous response to stale and mocking stereotypes. With sweet candor and gentle humor, Evans (who was born and raised in the Appalachian region of Kentucky) invites us into a world of smoky restrooms and drive-through food banks, a place where success is hard-earned. and small the joys are found in a pack of Marlboro Reds.

A great delight for the viewer is that Evans’s works are as much about painting as they are about his subjects. In “Y’all Full of Crud” (2022), two girls casually perch on the bonnet of an old car, the olive green of its finish echoing in the verdant countryside around it. Evans creates the lush landscape through hasty horizontal and vertical brushstrokes that, from afar, look more like magic marker work than oil paint. In other places, she lets the silver and green details of the car drip into painterly abstraction.

Ceirra Evans, “Y’all Full of Crud” (2022), oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

The girls themselves are rendered with tempered realism, coaxing depth and dimension from a restrained color palette. They seem to be about 11 or 12 years old, with clean faces, slightly unkempt hairstyles and unprovocative outfits (pink striped t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, sandals worn with socks). That childlike innocence, however, is dispelled with a small but emphatic white brushstroke: our talkative preteens are already familiar with cigarettes. A group of white smoke circles, probably applied with a palette knife, swirl and hover in front of the young subjects with all the playfulness of cotton candy.

Evans also possesses a cinematic eye for framing, a knack for immersing us in a scene that’s already in progress, as with “No Politics at the Table” (2021), in which four adults gather in relaxed postures around a kitchen table, under a haze of cigarette smoke. The individual TV dinners each contain their own modernist grid of green beans, golden corn, and pale meat; the view outside the window is reduced to a yellow block of sunlight. A figure, seated with his back to us, wears a dark patterned shirt created by a thick, sinuous application of paint that makes the garment more real in its abstraction. Three small clouds drift up from his head to join the mass of smoke that gathers at the top of the canvas, small puffs reminiscent of thought bubbles in a cartoon panel. Perhaps smoking creates its own communion, a ritual act that overshadows the need for verbal communication.

Ceirra Evans, “No Politics At the Table” (2021), oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

In “Bar Scene” (2021), cigarettes are not seen, only suggested: the main character, a rather nondescript white man in a striped collared shirt and slacks, leans against the bar, a bottle of beer in hand and an appreciative smile addressed to some slightly distant light source – a stage, perhaps? — the golden light tracing the side of his face. The rest of the room is darkened in broad strokes of dark brown, amber and ochre, with flashes of crimson red and lightning yellow: you only have to squint to confuse it with the stormy skies of a painting by John Martin or another of the Romantics. And indeed, there is a romanticism to the workplace, a willful nostalgia for the friendly neighborhood bar, the pleasure of cigarettes and beer without consequence.

Yet Evans cannot turn away from the more pernicious effects of tobacco on a population that suffers from some of the highest COPD rates in the country. “Bless His Heart,” the title of a 2022 work, is heard as often as “Good morning” in the South, and here the phrase tragically finds its literal application. In what appears to be a break room, five white men sit around a red Formica table, generating plumes of black smoke reminiscent of the ominous smog rising from factories. In the foreground, a man is lying on the ground, his body turned away from us and his arms clinging to his chest. His friend or colleague kneels down to examine him, a lit cigarette still in the handle of his worried mouth. The title conveys a kind of sardonic sympathy, but the men’s lack of interest in their distressed peers around the table is akin to a resignation that can be endemic in economically depressed communities.

Ceirra Evans, “It’s Okay to Go Home” (2022), oil on canvas, 48 ​​x 35 inches

The show’s main artwork (2022) is perhaps the most personal: the artist’s mother leans against an ornamental metal column on her porch, smoking a cigarette as she listens to her daughter, who has her back to us. . Evans appears in a camouflage t-shirt and jeans, brown hair shaved into a mohawk, a cigarette in his mouth and a trash bag in his hand. Here the artist eschews abstract passages for a greater density of detail – his mother’s bright blue Crocs, for example, or the lettering of the local university on the t-shirt covering his slightly frumpy body, the red tie vivid of the black garbage bag – which signifies a certain class probably unfamiliar to many gallery visitors. (Bath Countywhere Evans grew up, is over 96% white, and has a median household income of less than $45,000.)

The artist’s portrayal of his home and family is neither denigrating nor reverent, but rather an honest and unflinching look at a population that has become indelibly linked to poverty, ill health and social problems. By depicting himself smoking with his mother, Evans admits his complicity in the pervasive vice of the region without condemning or satirizing it. Rather, his work shows a willingness to see something much richer and more complicated, people who are both flawed and funny and sad and loving – in a word, human.

Ceirra Evans: It’s good to be home continues at the Moremen Gallery (710 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky) through February 19.

Ceirra Evans, “Bless His Heart” (2022), oil on wood panel, 36 x 60 inches

About Bernice D. Brewer

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