Authentic Political Art
Paintings by Angelo Evelyn that reflect threats of war, 
also of war on nature
Perhaps nearly everybody in the art world, regardless of whether we speak of critics, visual artists, or those among the public who care for art, knows instinctively that you cannot command artists to create political art. At least not, if you hope that the result will be art, rather than something that is on par with advertisements for Coke, seen on a large billboard. Regimes of every kind and color, from constitutional monarchies around 1914 to fascist dictatorships, from liberal republics in the Second World War, to Socialist governments in that war and its aftermath, have tried to harness artists and make them respond to"the call of the country" or of a class. It never works.

But that does not mean that visual art cannot convey sentiments and reveal hopes, that it cannot speak of fears or instill a craving, perhaps even for a more humane society. a world without war. The point is that apparently you cannot order artists around, you cannot order them to feel this or think that. Either it happens inside because this is alive in them, or you get a fake, a sterile response to some request, whether of a paying customer, or a dictating power.

But then, you will say, artists have for centuries been servants -- of a church that demanded attachment to religious topics, or of kings and aristocratic local rulers who wanted to be honored, respected, eternalized in art, and who thought they could get it by promising rewards. When merchant capitalism took roots in the 16th century in the Low Lands, painters like Rubens of course painted for paying  customers. Did it make later leaders, from Cuba to China, think that it works -- that artists can be disciplined, that they can sell their soul?

It is a mean question because it presupposes what ought to be proved: that the leadership of Cuba for instance, WANTED to armtwist painters or writers. That they did, in a number of cases, cannot be disputed, I think. Still, it is possible that they hoped artists and writers would freely, voluntarily, authentically embrace a revolutionary ethos. 

Some did. Others found it too difficult when they saw that they were not allowed to both support and critique the revolution. Still others never wanted to support it, perhaps.

In Cuba, the leaders said, "Within the revolution, everything is possible; against it, nothing." If practiced, if not an unkept promise. writers like Heberto Padilla would not have run into problems. It was those up there, "at the steering wheel," who decided what was "within the revolution." Heberto could think he was "within" it and that it would help the process to build a better Cuba, if one could critique, and also express sadness. He learned the hard way that it would not be accepted.

This makes many progressive artists and painters seek a certain independence from governments. They think, "It is possible to show solidarity -- but we will never give up our independent mind, our critical faculties, our authentic emotions, just in order to conform with a decreed sense of partisanship, of solidarity with the poor and exploited, the wretched of the earth."

This said, it should be clear that there are two kinds of political art. Commanded art, or art that gives in to expectations formulated by others -- whether the "masses" or governments.
And art that reveals a political stance because the artist -- the painter, print-maker, sculptor, filmmaker, or author -- is a politicized, a politically aware citizen.

It is of the second kind that quite a few of the paintings by the Canadian artist Angelo Evelyn seem to be.  They reveal the artist as a kind of seismograph, aware of coming social or political shock waves. But they reveal him also as a clear-minded, informed, politically aware, and committed individual.

In the 1980s, this expatriate artist who was living at the time in Germany, reacted in a number of paintings to the increasing Cold War tension associated with the decision of the U.S. (and of NATO) to station medium range missiles with nuclear warheads in Italy and Germany. There were protests in front of the U.S. base at Comiso (Italy) and Mutlangen (Germany) at the time. In Germany, the Nobel Prize recipient Heinreich Boell and Walter Jens were among those taking part in peaceful sit-ins in front of the Mutlangen base. The presence of such "celebrities" (celebrities, in the eyes of politicians, the mainstream media, and consequently, the police) helped soften the approach of the forces of disorder: Instead of clubbing demonstrators brutally, as was normal, they would politely carry them away and charge them with trepassing. Courts would fine the participants in the sit-in rather than send them to jail. Perhaps as the result of the relative success of the sit-ins (a success which was above all mediatic, causing attention of the mass public, with the consequence that one hundred thousand demonstrators came to the big demonstration in the West German capital, at the Bonn "hofgarden"), the laws were rewritten thereafter, redefining peaceful sit-ins not as a misdemeanor, but as an "act of passive violence." Thoreau and Gandhi would have been aghast. What an Orwellian invention of Newspeak: it shows how not only language but democracy was subverted. It did not start with George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping of millions, you see.

In the 1980s, Angelo Evelyn, as resident artist in West Germany, was fully aware of the increased danger of nuclear war. A pre-emptive strike of the Soviet Union that was cornered by freshly stationed missiles that would reduce their "warning time" to a few minutes, was at least thinkable. The strategy chosen by NATO was full of recklessly taken risks.

Here are two paintings that reflect the psychological turmoil caused in many contemporaries in Europe at the time.

The first painting shown here reveals a turbulent rhythm and a cacophony of colors. Enigmatic silhouettes of animals - camels, elephants and others - populate a landscape that shows few landscape qualities. This is no Serengeti, no prairie, no Congolese jungle - it is the asphalt jungle of Montréal or Berlin, places where this painter lived and painted for some time. And the animals seem like embodiments of fears and dangers, of movement, of apprehension, and also of aggression and defense.

The work shown in this photo, taken in the Rotterdam studio of the painter, with his wife in the foreground, reveals a nightmarish vision of World War II aerial attacks. It could be war in Vietnam as well, with B-52s dropping napalm above rice fields. Is anti-aircraft flak countering the attack? Are people, like shadows, or silhouettes, appearng out of dust clouds, clouds of explosions? Bleeding to death on the ground, or hovering in mid-air? There is no central perspective, and yet we sense a place, a space, we sense what is UP THERE and what's at the BOTTOM of the world. Colors flow and fuse, but in a darker, more threatening way than in Nolde's paintings. Apart from the silhouette of planes in clouds of color that suggest a sky, and guessable human shapes, no form resembles things in the way we expect to discover a semblance in figurative painting. 

When Angelo Evelyn, more than a decade later, visited a land art ensemble in Southern Germany that its creator, the artist Wuensche-Mitterecker intended to record his memory and vision of World War II battlegrounds (sites encountered as a painter, dispatched by the German army), a number of works like this one originated. The hilly landscape, the valley with its sculptures -- a green space in summer, a white one in snowy Bavaria winters -- becomes an empty plain. The emptiness between the objects is emphasized, and thus a feeling of desolation results. The human shapes of the sculptures -- in one case it is also the sculptured figure of a fallen horse -- have become strange and difficult to decipher. The force of the pen is felt; drawing these objects has almost become a violent act.  In comparison, the almost monochrome, light ochre color seems to have been  applied lightly. in a painterly, soft and almost tender fashion. 
The landscape is wide and the figures are as if lost, in this wide expanse. Is it the way we humans are lost in death, lost in our lonely way of dying? One of the objects placed in this cold, lonely, desolate world appears to me as a stoic creature, perhaps a sheep. The other animal lifts its head quietly, as if pensive, and faintly curious. A star constellation is juxtaposed, perhaps suggesting the incomprehensible workings of fate.

In more recent times, the tackling of a subject like war has taken different forms. It is as if war on nature has preoccupied Angelo Evelyn.

Here, a human figure makes a gesture as if to ward of imminent dangers, symbolized or at least represented, by a plane, another object n the sky that could be a satellite, and a flying boat. Forms that reoccur in his paintings of a Canadian island stud the horizon, their shape mirrored in what must be the water. Memories of his native region, Vancouver and Vancouver Island, come to mind. In the foreground, a boat seems to have capsized. And a barrel, turned over, is spilling some poison-green fluid into the sea. The recognizable trace of a pen, combined with the colors applied, has resulted in a strange, well-balanced work, executed not unlike some works by Jim Dine, but with a strange, almost surrealist touch to it.

The next painting included here captures, in painterly fashion, a landscape in Ontario, a Northern sky, filled by strange, almost ominous light, and islands in what must be a lake or a combination of lakes joined by a connecting river.  It is a large work, consisting of three panels that presents this landscape panorama. The world shown is at odds with itself -- both extremely peaceful, lonely, empty, devoid of human habitations -- and yet disturbed. There are leafless, barren tree trunks in the foreground. A plane has settled down on the lake, swimming on its surface, or is it about to land, but still several feet above the water? Two small boats are visble on the water, but they are empty, there are no humans. Apart from the barren trees, it is the presence of the plane, and its strange green color, that suggests something disturbing, destructive: the intervention of man. 


Very recently, the war on nature lights up again in a number of  "Dutch paintings" --  featuring the lowlands of that country, with its many big and small canals. 

Strange forms, like transformed, aggressive suns, appear in the sky. Men who could be qi-gong practioners, make gestures that seem symbolically defensive -- do they attempt to ward off global warming, or some other threat?  The serene landscape, consisting of flatlands crossed by canals and a line of trees along the horizon, is like an occupied country. What may be glass houses, positioned on those meadows, discard strange fluids into the canals.  Star constellations are juxtaposed next to the qi-gong practioners and superimposed on the land.  Do I see a helpless dog or sheep in the foreground, and the body of a large fish swept onto the yellowgreen grass? This world is in trouble -- so much is clear. But the painting, excecuted across four panels, shies away from extremes: the colors, apart from the bright red sunlike celestial bodies, suggest an almost idyllic state. The two sun-shaped red bodies, in the foreground, that seem to sink into the water, are aggressively red, however. And one of the four men we see, has flashed a rising stream of white mist or light upward, towards the stratosphere. It is as if he has made use of a secret, yet magic weapon. But why, and with what effect?

In this painting, the sun has turned almost black, its rays are spikes or thorns piercing the sky. Again we see flatlands, traversed by canals in that typical, very Dutch way. The panels are distinctly separate as illusionist parts of  a painting  that evokes a typical landscape.  Smoke from a fire seems to rise into the sky, on the right-hand panel. Here, too, in the central panel, we see water polluted by industrial agriculture. The world is in disorder, and people begin to sense a threat.


- Carla Voss

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