Jessie Benton Evans and Don Gray:

Theodore F. Wolfe, Artist and Christian Science Monitor Critic, Evaluates Their Art in the Context of the Twentieth Century



 Artists often wonder where they stand in relation to their fellow artists and to the art of their time. Where exactly do they and their work fit in? Is what they produce as good as they think it is? Does it contribute anything of value to their culture? And probably most important, will it last?


 Jessie Benton Evans and Don Gray are no exceptions. After several decades of intense creativity and the production of thousands of works of art, they are understandably curious about their place in recent American and Twentieth Century art.


 The answer is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Had they been painting a century or so ago, their position in American art would have been easier to determine. The art world at that time was a much simpler entity. It consisted of three basic factions: the academic, which insisted that all good things in art came from the past; the modernist, which believed that truth and quality invariably belonged to the new; and the realist, which held that art demanded direct and emotionally uncontaminated engagement with everyday reality.


 Each held firmly to its clearly defined position. Still, while all may have disagreed as to the nature of artistic quality, each believed that such quality did exist, and that it could be recognized and realized with reasonable consistency and certainty.


 That is hardly the case in today's art world with its ever-increasing number of 'isms, dogmas, orthodoxies, and divisions on the one hand, and on the other, its insistence that, in art, "anything goes," as long as it catches the eye and entertains sensibility and the intellect.


 With all this confusion and contradiction, it is difficult to see how anyone in this day and age can be certain of what art is and what it is not. And more important, how any young artist of talent and vision, bombarded by art world hype, self-serving art criticism, glorification of gimmickry, and not-so-subtle hints that success can be bought by conformity, could possibly be induced to remain true to that vision for a few months, let alone for the rest of his or her life.


 And yet, a surprising number do, even though, in the end, insufficient talent or lack of determination will cause most of them to fall short of fully realizing their objectives.


 A few, here and there, will make it, at least as far as the quality, integrity and consistency of their work is concerned. How closely that represents what they envisioned only they can say, although the greater the consistency, the greater the likelihood that what they create reflects, or comes close to reflecting, what they had originally hoped to achieve.


 In the case of Jessie Benton Evans and Don Gray, there can be little doubt that after more than forty years of creating art they have realized or are close to realizing their original intentions. Not that they are completely satisfied. Evans has "ideas for huge monumental paintings with concepts that I have never seen anyone paint before," and Gray continues his life-long pursuit of better and better ways to transform perception into paint.


 The point is, they can look back on what they have already produced with a feeling of accomplishment and pride, and forward to what will still come with assurance that it will continue to reflect what they have always believed in and did their utmost to bring to life as art.


 It is this clarity and consistency of vision, lifelong dedication to ideals, and belief in and pursuit of quality, that convinces me that they and other artists like them constitute the real art world and not the clever, shrewdly ambitious individuals whose work varies from season to season in response to the dictates of fashion or whatever new theory on the true nature of art may be making the rounds.


 Evans and Gray have always built their art on solid ground, in active dialogue with both the best of tradition and the dynamics of nature, and with the intention of creating something solid and enduring.


 In this they probably come closer to reflecting the values and ideals of the extraordinarily fertile 1920–1960 period of American art, the era that produced such quintessential American masters as John Marin, Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, and Stuart Davis, than they do to what drives most critically acclaimed art today. Evans and Gray represent a dynamic tradition and a creative approach that perceives art as serious and important and closely tied to the issues and realities of human existence.


 Evans' work is expansive, elemental, colorful, and grand. It celebrates nature in all its moods, but most particularly when it is at its wildest or most beatific. Creative passion and a sense of awe lie at the heart of almost everything she does regardless of its size. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is a majestic sweep and an all-embracing openness to her landscapes that sets them apart from those of any other painter working today.


 No less unusual, her more powerful landscapes possess a bold, highly charged painterly quality that occasionally places them closer in spirit to the dramatically energized non-representational canvases of the Abstract Expressionists than to the work of her less confrontational, more purely descriptive landscape-painting contemporaries.


 All this makes it difficult both to label her work and to situate it accurately within twentieth century and more recent American art. As an artist, she isn't quite what she seems. She paints landscapes, and she does it very convincingly, but she isn't so much interested in what her eyes see as she is in what her entire being experiences while confronting and being totally engaged by dramatic natural events. What results can only be described as landscape painting, and yet the more one studies what she produces, the more one realizes that it is not about such things as mountains, clouds, rain, lightning, and sunshine as much as it is about the workings of awesomely powerful cosmic forces, the very ones that created the universe and that occasionally feel it necessary to remind us of our vulnerability.


 Life and its manifestation as energy are her true subjects. The landscapes she paints are the embodiment of that energy and provide her with the means she requires to communicate to others her profoundly personal experiences with the life force. Abstract and non-representational art cannot accomplish this for her. As she says, "To reduce the external or even the internal world to stylized elementary abstract shapes is to create only half a painting. These shapes become much more meaningful to me when they assume the individuality of the visual world."


 With that in mind, one can only ask who else in recent American art has given us such challenging, expansive, and provocative landscape paintings and proven once again that the genre is capable of passion as well as caution and infinite detail. I can think of no one in today's art world pantheon willing to go beyond mechanically "accurate" renderings, formulaic landscape images, or softly romanticized depictions of nature at its most pleasing or benign. For what she represents, we have to go back a ways to Burchfield and Hartley, or even further, to Albert Pinkham Ryder and Winslow Homer.  Jessie Benton Evans is a kindred spirit that these artists would, I believe, take seriously.


 She is an original, there is nobody else quite like her, and she has produced a number of landscapes that rightly belong among the strongest and most original of any painted in America during the past several decades.


Don Gray is an entirely different kind of painter. Where Evans is emotionally expansive, Gray is objectively focused. For Evans, empathy and feeling come first; for Gray, clarity of vision and the ability to transform perception into paint are of primary importance. That may be an over-simplification of their differences but in a general sense it holds true. In addition, where Evans is at her best with landscapes, Gray is highly proficient in almost every category of representational art. Fortunately, since they are married, the quality of their work is equal but dissimilar.


 Gray's work is intensely focused, crisply defined, powerfully empathetic and unabashedly realistic. It celebrates the actuality of existence regardless of what form it takes, whether it is a human being, a mountain, a tree or even something as apparently insignificant as a tomato. In his eyes, if it exists, it is worthy of respectful attention.


 Gray has always been clear about his objectives. "I was after an intense realism that had as much of the intensity of reality as I could get, not only the reality of form, color and substance, but the deeper meaning I sensed in things."


 He obviously has succeeded. No matter what subject he depicts, and they include still-lifes, landscapes, cityscapes, flower paintings, portraits, figure studies, and self-portraits, the resulting work is not only beautifully realized, but vibrantly alive as well. And no wonder, for he has also said, "To me, truth resides in simple things . . . like fruit, vegetables, sardine cans, etc. I see meaning in them, spiritual, poetic."


 It is this combination of perceptual clarity and respect for, and delight in, the individuality of objects, no matter how small and unprepossessing, that most clearly characterizes Gray's work. He not only looks, he sees, and in a way that permits him to transform whatever lies before him into vital and vigorous works of art.


 His evolution as an artist hasn't always been easy. The temptation at critical junctures in his career to sensationalize his work or to move it in more fashionable directions must have been great. But he always held fast, and instead of allowing his creative energies to explode into painterly pyrotechnics or be diverted into gimmickry or formal theorizing, he turned them inward toward deeper and more challenging dimensions of artistic achievement.


 As a result, Gray's work, unlike that of so many of his less committed contemporaries, didn't become more "relevant" or "cutting edge" as he grew older. It simply got better.


 Now, "getting better" is such an old-fashioned idea as far as today's art world is concerned that not many art professionals appear to know what it means. It is not surprising, therefore, that Gray, whose work represents solidity and achievement, should find himself at odds with an art world enamored of just the opposite. His straightforward, empathetic, and intrinsically humble approach to art does not jibe with the more blatantly idiosyncratic and all too often self-promoting efforts of such recently successful painters as Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, Leon Golub, and David Salle, and still less with the productions of the Photo-Realists and all others who do their best to replicate nature's precise appearance down to the tiniest and least significant detail. Furthermore, while he may be closer in spirit and talent to such artists as Philip Pearlstein and Gregory Gillespie, what he produces has a clarity and vibrancy that is lacking in even these artists' most successful works.


 The question, then, is not whether Gray is good enough to be in these painters' company, but why he isn't there.


 To answer that, we must understand that Gray's primary painterly allegiance is to the qualities and values represented by such artists as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Chardin, and Manet, all of whom addressed Nature and nature's objects with respect and with the desire to translate something of what they understood about them into art. His intention is not to paint like these masters—that would run counter to his deepest beliefs—but to use them as guides and role models in his lifelong quest to "discover the nature of reality while painting it and express my feelings about what I saw and discovered."


 Gray's most valuable creative asset is clarity of perception. He knows how to look and see and how to translate what he sees into art. It's that simple, but it's also very difficult. It's so difficult, in fact, that few artists can manage it today and then, in frustration, often take refuge in gratuitous distortion, idiosyncratic imagery, or over-intellectualized theorizing.


 There are a few artists of quality here and there who share Gray's commitment to the values and ideals of the Post-Impressionist and Western European painting traditions, but they tend to be isolated individuals working very much on their own with little or no significant art world support. Their problem is the difficult nature of their objective and the fact that since Edward Hopper's noble failure to fashion a truly monumental representational art a few decades ago, no concerted effort has been made other than by a few determined individuals to prove not only that such art is possible today, but that it is essential to the health and dignity of American art that it should at least be attempted.


 The fact that a large number of Gray's finest paintings are still-lifes complicates the matter. He has no real competition in this area even though every Tom, Dick, and Harry of limited talent and less imagination has tried his or her hand at this genre. There are some still-life painters around but very few, if any, have as yet come close to producing anything as outstanding as Gray's "Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh". Most of them have been satisfied turning out handsome but sterile still-life images (William Bailey), or have gone in the direction of a kind of Neo-Popism (Wayne Thiebaud).


 As I indicated before, it is difficult to place talented and accomplished but decidedly individualistic artists like Evans and Gray within the larger context of this period's art since the values and objectives of today's art world are so confused.


 That, of course, raises a serious question. If there are no generally accepted standards by which art can be determined, how is one to know what is and what isn't art?


 The answers run all the way from dogged insistence that standards do exist—although most probably contradict one another—to the belief that anything challenging or "life affirming" that claims to be art must be given the benefit of the doubt until posterity decides for or against it.


 There is another way to approach this issue: Ignore "official" art world opinion and judgment and make a decision about the work in question on the basis of the nature, quality, richness, and staying power of the viewing experience itself. That is not as simplistic or as irresponsible as it may sound. It does require faith in one's own judgment, but in the final analysis, it may be the best—and possibly the only—way to truly decide what is and what isn't art, and what has the most value and significance.


 It is the way I approach the art of Jessie Benton Evans and Don Gray, and the more I do so, the more I've come to respect and appreciate their work and to believe that it deserves a higher level of critical acknowledgement than it currently receives.


 For that to happen, however, important changes would have to occur. For one thing, more art professionals and collectors would have to really look at art for what it is rather than deciding for or against it on the basis of how closely it resembles fashionable work or conforms to one or another academically or critically sanctioned theory about the nature of art. And for another, the art world's love affair with theory, novelty, and sensationalism would have to end, or at least lose some of its impact on the critical process.


 Since neither of these things is likely to occur in the foreseeable future, I will direct my attention to why I believe Evans and Gray deserve a higher level of art world recognition than they are receiving at present.


 To begin with, their work represents a lifelong commitment to the creative process at its deepest and most difficult, but also most rewarding, levels, as well as a record of achievement that encompasses thousands of works on canvas and paper that are of museum quality. Furthermore, both remained true to their respective visions and ideals, and devoted significant portions of their lives to perfecting their art and craft while concentrating most of their creative energy to giving life and form not only to what they saw and experienced but also to what they cared about most deeply. And all this, despite the fact that by doing so, they were, in all likelihood, cutting themselves off from the most prestigious levels of art world acclaim.


 Well and good. But integrity and dedication—even talent—do not necessarily result in art of substance. The most important question still remains. What about the quality of their art? Does it hold up when compared to the best work produced today or during the past several decades? And if it does, why?


 Both, I believe, produced paintings that would hold up beautifully in any serious, honorably chosen exhibition of the best of recent American art, and would stand out among the pick of the lot. Evans' "Sangre de Cristo Aspens Over Tesuque," "Mesa Valley Sunset," "Brave Boat Harbor Tide, Maine," "Rain #1," and "Storm Over Glenmere Lake", for instance, have very few, if any, equals, even among today's older-generation landscapes. Neil Welliver landscapes, I suppose, despite their coldly formulaic approach, would be among those that are possibly equal, but there would be none as far as I can see among the more recent landscapes. And as far as other, non-representational work is concerned, Evans would very much hold her own.


 Gray would also shine in such an exhibition, especially with "Red Snapper Cezanne and Van Gogh," "Rembrandt, Gauguin, Fabric," "Red Bouquet, Red Background," "Three Tomatoes, Chicken of the Sea," and "Sedona Cliffs and Clouds". In fact, the first of these paintings should, I believe, hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the fourth should be shown to every art student as an example of how effective simplicity can be in still-life painting.


 On the other hand, the question of where Evans and Gray stand in relation to other American artists of the past half-century is more difficult to answer. As far as quality is concerned they do extremely well, but quality, as we've seen, is not necessarily a major factor in the establishment of a reputation. Since the days when Andy Warhol turned art upside-down by allowing everything but the kitchen sink to be cited as the reason for an artist's "greatness", painters like Evans and Gray have had a difficult time getting the serious attention they deserve. And by the same token, any number of untalented or mediocre painters has achieved a level of prestige way out of proportion to their true worth.


 Looking back at that period, and going through book after book on the painting of that time, the names of several artists of Evan's and Gray's caliber came into focus. One name, Fairfield Porter, stood out, not because his paintings most closely resembled those of Evans and Gray—they didn't—but because the overall quality and range of his work most closely approximated that of our two artists. Furthermore, everything Porter did was wonderfully solid, balanced, and whole and totally lacking in the gimmicks and formal devices that so many otherwise talented painters all too often utilized in order to draw attention to their work.


 All this can also be said about Evans and Gray. Like Porter, they are serious, committed painters. And like him, they are neither tricksters nor entertainers. And neither are they interested in following fashion nor in being "cutting edge."


 The surprising and dismaying thing is how rare such artists are among the art world's elite. When I began this introductory essay, I thought it would be easy to find a significant number of painters of that period who, regardless of reputation, were roughly equal to Evans and Gray in talent and achievement and who shared their basic values and ideals. Unfortunately, I only found a few, and most of them are all but unknown to the world at large.


 It is not so much talent and skill, and certainly not reputation, that concern us here, but a commitment to a perception of art that goes beyond mere self-expression and self-promotion, that isn't bound by theory, and that engages the world and its realities rather than avoiding them or pretending they don't exist. There certainly is no shortage of artists who primarily shock and fascinate—every new art season brings us another crop—and the past half-century of American art has produced and honored more of these individuals than ever before. True, they are an interesting bunch. Many are talented, a few have become famous, and two, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, have reached the pinnacle of art world stardom.


 But that is not the art world to which Evans and Gray belong. Not at all. Theirs is richer and deeper, more committed to the great art of the distant and recent past, and more concerned with the enrichment of the human spirit than with titillation of the senses or exploitation of talent. It is a world of balance, enthusiasm, and respect to which more creatively talented individuals belong than art world publicity allows us to realize. And in which quality, if not easily defined, is acknowledged and sought.


 Perhaps, in the final analysis, it really boils down to this: Anyone viewing the work of Evans and Gray with an unprejudiced eye and without pre-determined ideas about the innate superiority of one style or approach over all others, has to acknowledge that it is extremely well-done, honest, engaging, impressive, beautiful and moving, and profound.


 About how much else being produced today can one say that?






Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms