Jessie Benton Evans

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Artist Elaine de Kooning: "a prodigiously gifted young woman artist...She is an extremely strong and original painter who has given landscape concepts a new dimension. She would be on my list of "Ten Best American Women Artists."
 
The Christian Science Monitor: "Art that is visionary, ecstatic, ominous, highly romantic ...Even Van Gogh...would have been surprised at (her paintings') breadth of execution."
 
The New York Times: "Coming to her paintings is like coming to an oasis...(Like) Charles Burchfield, but the symbolism is more revved up. She approaches William Blake."
 
The New York Times: "One function of art is to expand, rather than merely reiterate human experience...Evans's art rings true."
 
The (N.Y.) Times Herald Record: "She is an Expressionist with daring...(who) cuts through smokescreens with bold gestures to redefine the landscape."
 
Art in America: "They are overwhelmingly powerful pictures...When she paints, she makes intuitive and spontaneous decisions. She considers herself to be a vehicle for the expression of nature's spiritual presence."
 

Extended Art Reviews

The Christian Science Monitor: "Interestingly enough, only a small minority (of landscape painters in the mid-1970s) put the emphasis on what they felt rather than on what they saw, and even fewer committed themselves to striking a balance between emotion and observation. Among the latter was Jessie Benton Evans, a painter of large, bold, highly subjective landscape images that were painted in the field and that always represented a particular place and time.
 
"As a matter of fact, to describe her pictures as large and boldly painted is to understate the case - as anyone who has seen her working on an 8-foot-wide canvas attached to her van for support can testify. Even van Gogh, were he painting nearby, would have been surprised at her breadth and directness of her execution and would have wandered over to take a closer look. What he saw might or might not have impressed him - but he almost certainly would have approved of her manner of working and of her passionate response to the landscape that lay before her.
 
"And passionate it is, what with her swirling, low-lying horizons, and hearty daubs of paint that become trees, hills, buildings, and forests if viewed from the proper distance. The result, depending on one's point of view, is art that is visionary, ecstatic, ominous, highly romantic - or, possibly, even a combination of all the above.
 
"What it is not is dull and like everyone else's. Even someone wishing to criticize her work has to admit that it's totally hers. And why shouldn't it be? It comes from deep within her, reflects her own profoundly personal view of life and the world around her, and was brought into being only after years of dedication and hard work.
 
"It is also somewhat unusual in that it is painted outdoors, often under difficult weather conditions, and in direct confrontation with the view that inspired it. An artist's only recourse in a situation like that is to get right to the point and be as honest and effective as possible. There is not time for rationalizing or theorizing. Nature demands that the artist pay close attention, and that he or she enter into deep and challenging dialogue with it.
 
"But then, that's exactly what an artist like Jessie Benton Evans wants and why she is painting out in the sun and wind in the first place."
 
 
The New York Times: "(Jessie Benton Evan's) technique is more intuitive and her response to nature more visceral. Her studies of dramatic skies and light-drenched landscapes show a kinship with Charles Burchfield, who exalted in nature's drama and even celebrated its darker, ominous aspects.
 
"There is a refreshing immediacy in the execution of these romantic, turbulent landscapes...an aura of authenticity...we accept the artist's interpretation as valid in its transmission of those aspects of landscape that she finds moving, qualities that are not necessarily apparent to the objective observer. One function of art is to expand, rather than merely reiterate, human experience, and on that level, Evans's art rings true."
 
 
The New York Times: "An assertive, emotionally charged thrust is also characteristic of Jessie Benton Evans's large landscape paintings, which blend their expressionism with a sensitivity to the momentary qualities of impressionism, especially the language of light and constant variation. Thick, sensuous pigment defines chunky, independent shapes - particularly clouds - that comment on nature's sweeping motion. A personalized, rather dynamic color impact is important too."
 
The New York Times: "...one always feels that coming to a Jessie Benton Evans painting is like coming to an oasis. She paints pastoral rural scenes...with a fervor..."
 
 
Art in America: "Jessie Benton Evans's landscapes, measured in feet rather than inches, are painted in acrylic. They are overwhelmingly powerful pictures. She is a classic example of someone who possesses what Wilhelm Worringer meant by 'positive empathy.' Most people looking at the terrain that provides Evans with her subject matter would see a flat, uneventful desert, but to her the same place is clearly a riot of twisting and sinuous gorges below a sky in which clouds flare out like a toreador's cape. When she paints, she makes intuitive and spontaneous decisions; she considers herself to be a vehicle for the expression of nature's spiritual presence, 'some God-inspired universal mechanism beyond my comprehension.' Her paintings summon up a wide range of associations and precedents in my head: the popular prints of Mexican folk artists Jose Guadalupe Posada, especially his 'Calavera' woodcuts; passages from the writings of the 17th-century divine Jeremy Taylor; the works of Thomas Hart Benton, Ferdinand Hodler and William Blake; Chinese dragons; stained glass windows warning the church congregation of the Last Judgement. The painting I liked the best was 'Sangre de Cristo Sunburst,' in which the sun hurls its beams down upon a crumpled, rhythmically tormented land. Another remarkable work is 'Sangre de Cristo Sunset,' with its aureole of light surrounding a fiery orange and purple cloud-basket.
 
"Evans hardly ever uses an easel. She leans her canvases against the side of her truck, or she ties them down to a tree or even to a saguaro cactus. The smaller pictures she puts flat on the ground, her paints arrayed in a circle around her. Elaine de Kooning, who followed Evans's work for years, wrote in an open letter shortly before her death that Evans was on her list of 'Ten Best American Women Painters.'"
 
 
Scottsdale Magazine: "In 'Pink Cloud: Snow" the central mass of pink stuff has the animated, roiling vitality which only comes from - if the cliché can be forgiven - a rare moment of artistic truth. The self-portraits are even more sensational. 'Self Portrait with Cross' is pure museum material, impossible to explain to the non-believer. What we see is the representation of the face and upper body which the artist saw when she looked into a mirror. It has all the earmarks of the typical expressionist portrait - the wild, rampant brush barely held in check, the face distorted under the pressure of an urgent need to convey emotion, the cheeks sharply heightened in color, and the background area a mass of seething paint."
 
 
(N.Y.) Times Herald Record: "Jessie Benton Evans's paintings are alive in a locality all their own, and her unique and powerful vision is rooted in them...These paintings give off a furious energy that is expressed by the physical and symbolic qualities of the subjects. Consumed landscapes twitch and curl, strokes of bold color swirl wildly, yet serve to demonstrate a well-defined concept of space. This forcefulness is used to express an intensely personal vision. (She) is an Expressionist with daring, and via the dense textures of paint, the powerful razzle-dazzle of line and form that swoops the entire expanse of her canvas, a movement that is palpable and articulate can be glimpsed. In the time-tested manner of saying thoroughly familiar things, she reinterprets the familiar for us, cuts through smoke screens with bold gestures to redefine the landscape...The artist's skillful invention...seems to be the product of an inward, anxious and prolonged gazing."
 
 
Southwest Profile Magazine: Ecstatic Expressionism: "'I can't wait to get back to Arizona,' Jessie Benton Evans says as she and her husband, painter Don Gray, pull her large acrylic paintings out of the back of their truck, parked by a fire hydrant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It is a dismal day in January, and the wind whips up Broadway, carrying occasional flecks of wet sleet or spittle that hit the cheeks of pedestrians.
 
"The makeshift exhibit of Jessie Evans's paintings is necessary because the Grays are about to depart for Arizona for a winter of painting. Her paintings are open landscapes filled with sinuous, organic forms, vibrant light effects and a feeling of awe in the presence of nature's supreme beauty. New York's cold, jealous wind tries its damnedest to wrest the canvases from the Grays' grasp and blow them into oblivion -- which is anywhere west of the Hudson River.
 
"Though both Jessie and Don were born and reared in Arizona, they have spent most of the last 20 years in New York, living in the city before moving to a farm in the Hudson River Valley. 'We came to New York because we thought it was the center of the art world,' Jessie says as she holds onto her Double Rainbow (acrylic, 70 x 96 inches), a spinnaker-sized painting of clouds moving with almost sexual form and force. 'We lived in Greenwich Village, outgrew that apartment, and moved up Lexington Avenue to a place across from Bloomingdale's, which was madness and eroded our central nervous systems. After five or six years, we headed out of the city, and it was wonderful. I didn't know how much I missed nature. Just seeing a tangle of weeds, trees that hadn't been pruned, set me free. Now I do all my paintings outdoors, on the spot. Double Rainbow was done on a windy day. Everything was zooming. Sometimes it's quite comical with these big canvases, but I wanted to get all that animation in it. I love all those long tendrils of clouds that are like electricity. The truth is I'm painting Arizona wherever I am. That's where my vision was born.'
 
"Out of the truck comes Red Sky (acrylic, 67 by 50 inches) and Storm (acrylic, 69 by 96 inches), and it is obvious that Jessie is an expressionist. She applies paint in thick, quick, curling strokes. She favors landscapes that move, hills that turn into each other, clouds that tumble over each other. Her forms and colors are heightened, jacked up about four notches to match the big excitement she feels in her chest when she is in the presence of nature's majesty. There's the feeling these works were painted by an ecstatic, reflecting as they do the energy of Van Gogh, and working with a symbolic regard for nature reminiscent of William Blake. The sun in Red Sky blazes as the eye of God and invokes the feeling of an impending apocalypse. Yet the work is distinctly her own. The feeling is not of death and destruction ordered by the angry male God of the Old Testament, but rather the bright apocalypse of the feminine spirit, the bursting-through in a bloody birth to the crystal door of human potential, the power of the imagination.
 
"The sidewalk show is interrupted by a traffic cop in a drab brown uniform. 'You people have to move this truck,' he says and points to the fire hydrant. 'We'll be here just another minute,' Don says, 'and then we're moving.' The cop thinks for a second and then glances at Red Sky. He may have cracked a smile before he nods and moves off.
 
"Resuming the conversation inside the truck cab, Jessie talks about the painting of Red Sky. 'Late one afternoon near our farm I was painting cumulus clouds when the dark clouds on the right elongated like fingers or jaws. As I painted these shapes, the sun burst through, and a single ray shot down and hit the mountain. The menacing, jagged clouds trying to reach out and grab the mandala-shaped sun, the dark versus light...It seemed like I was watching a cosmic war in the sky between good and evil.
 
"'To electrify the color, I exaggerated the red-purple clouds, which intensified the turquoise sky and yellow sun rays at the horizon. To get the feeling of planetary forces, I exaggerated the curve of the earth. So I was aware of making a conscious analogy in this battle for the earth between the sun and the dark cloud, but it was all there in the scene. I feel a spiritual presence in nature. Immense beauty is always there, even as the backdrop for the starkest realities, life and death, played out within it. I try to accept these opposites even though I can't reconcile them emotionally. I try to see it as some God-inspired universal mechanism beyond my comprehension.'
 
"The conversation turns to the past and Arizona. 'Everything I paint, even portraits, is the result of a Southwest vision, a rhythm,' she says. 'I grew up at the foot of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, and my great-grandmother, Jessie Benton Evans, for whom I was named, was a well-known Southwestern artist. She moved there in 1911 and was a pioneer in bringing art and culture to the area. She was an independent-minded grande dame who had traveled in Italy, and she made sure we had French lessons, elocution lessons, art. And she fostered my love of nature. We'd pick flowers together and then spend hours arranging them.
 
"'She told me I was going to be an artist, and I am. That was my identity from the minute I was born, and I've painted my whole life. But growing up there...I became a natureholic. Even here. Wherever I am, I look for great big skies, wide spaces. Every year I have to get back there. I need to live there, in Arizona or New Mexico, at least half the year. There's a monumentality to the landscape that is spiritual, really, just like a glimmer of the enormity of God.'
 
"Though their styles are very different, Jessie Evans's work is akin to that of Georgia O'Keeffe's. Where O'Keeffe is generally studied, Evans is loose. But both find the same aliveness of forms in nature. The fluid sinews of O'Keeffe's Cliffs Beyond Abiquiu and the pearly recess of cloud in Evans's Pastorale (acrylic, 69 x 96) are two parts of the same body. 'We both exaggerate the shapes,' Evans's says of the comparison. 'We see a biomorphic movement in them. We respond to nature the same way, to trees, the twist and heave of the land -- that's what unifies us.'
 
"What Evans longs for now is the freedom to do nothing but paint, and she's nearly there. She's ecstatic about the prospects of getting back to the Southwest, getting out in the open and getting to work, 'because it all comes from Arizona,' she says, climbing out of the truck. 'I spent my childhood lying on a rock on Camelback Mountain, looking over the desert, just looking. When I wasn't looking, I was catching lizards, or looking for rattlesnakes. I loved to differentiate their patterns and textures from the ground. It's like, even now, I can find a four-leaf clover immediately, like nothing.'
 
"The Grays pile back into the truck and drive up Broadway -- on their way to the great outdoors of Arizona that nourishes Jessie's creative spirit."
  
 

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