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‘Apocrypha’: The art of Dennis Evans at Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art

A retrospective of the Seattle artist’s work ranges from artifacts of Fluxus-inspired performance art to encaustic/mixed media pieces that conflate ideas, stories, history, and cosmology.

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Artist Dennis Evans, at work in his Seattle studio, went to parochial school where, he has said, “My biggest lesson from the nuns was how to learn.” He calls his retrospective show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art “one man’s journey for 50 years.” Photo courtesy: Dennis Evans

Dennis Evans isn’t a marquee name in Oregon’s diverse, far-flung arts community, but those who see the Seattle artist’s retrospective show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem likely won’t soon forget it.

Dennis Evans: Apocrypha, at the Willamette University-affiliated art museum through August, is surely his largest Oregon exhibition. It is as magnificent and absorbing as the elegantly designed, full-color, hardcover book by arts critic Matthew Kangas that accompanies it.

Evans, now in his 70s, attended the gala opening in mid-June and he’ll return Aug. 13 for a free, public talk with his wife, nationally recognized glass artist Nancy Mee, with whom he collaborates in their rambling northeast Seattle home and studio called Utopian Heights.

The uninitiated may be forgiven for thinking, upon a casual glance, that the retrospective is two shows by two wildly different artists. Tellingly, when I sat down with Evans and asked him what he wants visitors to take away from it, he replied: “That it’s not a group show!” He laughed. “That it’s one guy, one man’s journey for 50 years.”

An established performance and mixed media artist in Washington, Evans showed work in Oregon about a dozen times between 1976 and 2000; half of those were solo shows at the Laura Russo Gallery in Portland. Those paying very close attention to the visual arts scene back then might recall his 1976 Oregon debut at the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, where he injured his hand while performing with a bow and arrows, requiring an emergency room visit.

Evans was born in 1946, and nothing about life in a blue-collar home in postwar Yakima offered a hint that this son of a meat cutter would go on to become an accomplished artist. In hindsight, two elements of his childhood were crucial in that regard: He loved building stuff in his dad’s garage, and he attended parochial school, where nuns and Jesuit priests impressing upon him the value of a solid education. “My biggest lesson from the nuns,” he said in an interview a few years ago, “was how to learn.”

Evans planned to be a doctor, going so far as to major in chemistry at the University of Washington. He spent two years in the Marines, and in 1971, returned to Yakima. In what he terms a “fairy tale” turn of events, he found himself throwing pots with a woman in a local orchard who eventually told him, “You’re an artist.”

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“It just turned the switch for me,” he said. “I knew at that point that I wanted to make art.”

The Hallie Ford exhibition, curated and meticulously documented by museum director John Olbrantz, features work made between 1976 and 2021, with about half representing the 1970s through the 1990s. It clearly represents two different stages of Evans’ artistic life.

The first comprises nearly 20 black-and-white photographs (many shot by Mee) documenting his Dada- and Fluxus-inspired performance art from the 1970s and 1980s, along with a collection of artifacts he made and used in those shows, including strange-looking musical instruments and scores.

The balance of the exhibition is arguably the more eye-popping and intellectually stimulating work. It consists of nearly 20 encaustic/mixed media pieces, many made in collaboration with Mee, for exhibitions and installations over the past quarter century, mostly in Washington.

Encaustic painting involves applying hot wax colored with pigments to a hard surface. For most of these pieces, Evans used canvas. Depending on the colors used and textures rendered, the finished work can be mistaken for wood, rock, or even metal. With that base, Evans and Mee throw in other ingredients — glazed porcelain, wood, etched glass, ceramic, brass, along with objects and almost always text and symbols (more on that later) to suggest a mysterious conflation of ideas, stories, history, and concepts.

“Bibliotheque de Requettes Philosophique,” from “Prospero’s Library,” by Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee (Encaustic on canvas, wood, etched glass, and brass bowl, 60 by 45 by 12 inches, 2015, collection of the artists). Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art
“Bibliotheque de Requettes Philosophique” from “Prospero’s Library” by Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee (Encaustic on canvas, wood, etched glass, and brass bowl, 60 by 45 by 12 inches, 2015, collection of the artists). Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art

Take, for example, a single panel from Prospero’s Library, an elaborate installation he and Mee created in 2015 based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Prospero’s Books, the avant-garde film by Peter Greenaway that imagined what might be contained in the exiled magician’s books.

The piece displays about 40 books with titles on the spines that hint at the entirety of human thought: Ethics, Metaphysics, Cosmology, Epistemology, Theosophy, Utopia, and so forth — perfect reading for life on a deserted island. With a few other items attached to the surface, including a slender, vertically mounted shard of what looks like copper and an hourglass, Bibliotheque de Requettes Philosophique is one of the simpler encaustic pieces, although no less elegant.

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Detail from “The Third Grammar of Eden,” from the “Book of Hours” (Encaustic and mixed media on canvas, minerals, glass and exotic materials, 48 by 72 inches, 1998, collection of Nick MacPhee. Photo by: David Bates
Detail from “The Third Grammar of Eden” from the “Book of Hours” by Dennis Evans (Encaustic and mixed media on canvas, minerals, glass and exotic materials, 48 by 72 inches, 1998, collection of Nick MacPhee). Photo by: David Bates

But to focus on the encaustic pieces is to wish you’d seen them in their original context, where layout and lighting design would surely have deepened the ambience of mystery and wonder. A few color photos in Apocrypha show some, but those, too, just whet the appetite. The lucky visitors at those exhibits, Evans told me, would stay for hours. “They would get involved in the story,” he said. “And I said, ‘This is what I want to have happen.’”

These fascinating encaustic/mixed media pieces have been plucked from collections with titles such as Imagine — After the Deluge (which imagines who would be necessary to rebuild a utopian society in the aftermath of some apocalyptic event), Sultan’s Library, The Seven Libraries of Babylon, the Book of Hours, the Lessons on Objects Series, and The Critique of Pure Writing. Most recently, The Cosmology Series touches on ideas and questions Evans has been obsessed with since 2012 when scientists announced their discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

If those titles suggest their creator is enamored with more than the little matter of cosmology, you’d be right. The Jesuit teachers who inspired Evans to read put him on a track of deep learning that got wider and steeper when he started studying art at the University of Washington in the 1970s. Kangas, who has followed Evans’ career from the beginning, goes into this in some depth in the exhibition’s Apocrypha book, which Evans said prompted Olbrantz to reach out to him about doing this show. 

“Instrument Sled/Traversal Vehicle with Instruments,” a piece Dennis Evans used in the mid-1970s for performance, is displayed in the atrium of the Melvin-Rubio Henderson Gallery at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. In the background (from left) are encaustic/mixed media pieces from “The Cosmology Series: Fundamental Particles” (2019), “The Standard Model of Particle Physics” (2020), and “The Collider” (2021).
“Instrument Sled/Traversal Vehicle with Instruments,” a piece Dennis Evans used in the mid-1970s for performance, is displayed in the atrium of the Melvin-Rubio Henderson Gallery at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. In the background (from left) are encaustic/mixed media pieces from “The Cosmology Series: Fundamental Particles” (2019), “The Standard Model of Particle Physics” (2020), and “The Collider” (2021). Photo by: David Bates

UW’s School of Art, formed in 1935, was considered among the West Coast’s best, Kangas reports, benefiting from its close relations with European art schools. There, Evans found himself under the tutelage of the Dutch-born Jan van der Marck, the curator who ran the UWs’ art museum.

The itinerary of artists and intellectual heavyweights who made an impact on Evans during his student years, as Kangas unfurls it in Apocrypha, is staggering: Alfred Jarry, Evelyn Waugh, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Umberto Eco, Joseph Campbell, John Cage, and Mircea Eliade, to name a few. As he encountered each new figure, Evans would devour their work and connect dots. “I was self-educating myself, because the Jesuits taught me to always be curious,” he said. “Early on, I was exposed to Carl Jung and his writings, the Bollingen Series of books from Princeton. I bought every one I could find and read every one of them.”

Steeped in the ideas and sensibilities of European and particularly French artists, Evans was largely uninterested in what was going on in Pacific Northwest art — or as he called the leading members of that school, the “fin-and-fur” people. As a result, Kangas writes, the young artist “emerged as a delayed chrysalis from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.”

“Score for Bow and Moon Modulated Moon Bowls” (Mixed media on paper, 27 by 38 inches, 1975, collection of the artist. Photo by: David Bates
“Score for Bow and Moon Modulated Moon Bowls” by Dennis Evans (Mixed media on paper, 27 by 38 inches, 1975, collection of the artist). Photo by: David Bates

Visitors to the Hallie Ford get a taste of the artist’s early blossoming in the lobby. A collage of Mee’s photographs illustrates Evans at work mounting Performance of Sun Traversals/Raw and Cooked, Fresh and Rotten, a 1976 “landscape performance” that found him on a beach in his trademark white shirt and tuxedo pants, riffing off the structuralist ideas of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In one image, he’s seated on the rocks playing one of his original musical instruments that seem inspired by Rube Goldberg. The exhibition features more than half a dozen of these contraptions, in which familiar parts are fashioned into enigmatic sculptural works with a vaguely steampunk look. Sadly, but understandably, all include a “Do not touch” sign.

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“Instrument Box for Wind Instruments” (Wood, lacquer and porcelain, 12 by 24 by 18 inches, 1976, collection of Nancy Mee. Photo by: David Bates
“Instrument Box for Wind Instruments” by Dennis Evans (Wood, lacquer and porcelain, 12 by 24 by 18 inches, 1976, collection of Nancy Mee). Photo by: David Bates

The first section of Apocrypha features these objects along with photographs of Evans outdoors in various performances (one, Passion Play, was 12 hours long, so there’s an image for each hour). Included are the scores he wrote, designed, and drew for the performances, where he appeared as his alter ego, Ubu Waugh (based on the character in Alfred Jarry’s anarchic play Ubu roi). Also on display are the bow and arrows he used in that ill-fated Portland show.

The final display on this leg of the exhibition illustrates the inexplicable weirdness of the Dada-inspired Fluxus movement of performance art that emerged in the 1960s, an interdisciplinary approach that obliterated distinctions between art and virtually any other human activity. As part of a 1978 adventure aboard a tiny boat, Evans collected stones along the shore that became 100 Discrete Tuned Sounding Stones for Puget Sound.

A gridded tray holds the elaborately carved stones — all “tuned to echo sounds when thrown into the water.” An old U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map of Puget Sound indicates where Evans lowered each stone with a wire, and black-and-white pictures show the bearded, tuxedo-clad artist out there in the fog, wearing earphones.

"Instrument Box for 100 Discrete Tuned Sounding Stones for Puget Sound" by Dennis Evans (Wood, lacquer, and stones. 32 by 32 by 1 inches, 1980, collection of the artist) Photo by: David Bates
“Instrument Box for 100 Discrete Tuned Sounding Stones for Puget Sound” by Dennis Evans (Wood, lacquer, and stones. 32 by 32 by 1 inches, 1980, collection of the artist) Photo by: David Bates

Notwithstanding the legacy of other trailblazing artists in the Seattle area — John Cage, after all, spent a few years teaching at the Cornish College of the Arts there — local journalists and critics weren’t sure what to make of Evans.

“They were used to writing about the fin-and-fur art, a lot of pretty pictures, and all of a sudden here’s a guy out in Puget Sound recording splashes with sounding stones,” Evans said. “It was challenging for them. At first, they just said, ‘This guy’s crazy, he’s a bad artist.’ And then when I went to New York and was in the Whitney Biennial and I was getting good reviews, they started going, ‘Hey, maybe we ought to take a different look at this guy.’ They had to up their game with my work.”

In a fascinating chapter of the book, Kangas documents how Seattle (and New York) arts journalists grappled with Evans’ idiosyncratic work. It forced them, along with passersby who might happen upon the tuxedoed Evans wading through a marsh, to ask questions about what art is. Many artists prefer to let their work speak for itself, but early on, Evans realized that talking about the work was part of the work, particularly since it was his intention — as he told an interviewer in 2021 — to create art that is “esoteric and definitively uninterpretable.”

Evans says, in that same interview, that this assessment applies primarily to his earliest work. But he also clearly understands that a person visiting the dreamlike, ethereal spaces he and Mee conceived decades later, such as Prospero’s Library, will have questions.

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“It seems to me,” I told him, pointing to a piece from Imagine — After the Deluge, “that a viewer could look at something like that and say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

“I knew that, so I would help you,” he replied, acknowledging the cerebral demands placed on those visiting his installations. “I’d have a wall panel giving you a context for that piece and how it operated within my story and imagination.”

Some dealers objected to that, he said, regarding it as unnecessary hand-holding by the artist and clutter. Evans said his response would be, “‘This is too complicated, this is not just a red piece to go over the couch. It’s got a whole trainload of baggage coming with it, so either you give them help with that, or we’re not going to work together.’ People loved those shows.”

All the encaustic/mixed media pieces in Apocrypha — some on loan from two private collections and others belonging to the artist — are mesmerizing, aesthetically ambitious exercises in illustrating and nibbling around the edges of entire bodies of knowledge, or just Big Ideas: writing, apocalypse, physics, etc.

“The Book of Whimsy,” from “The Critique of Pure Writing” (Encaustic on panel, mirrors, and antique picture frames. 32 by 60 inches, 1992, collection of the artist). Photo by: David Bates
“The Book of Whimsy” from “The Critique of Pure Writing” by Dennis Evans (Encaustic on panel, mirrors, and antique picture frames. 32 by 60 inches, 1992, collection of the artist). Photo by: David Bates

Another, relatively straightforward example is a 1992 encaustic on panel, The Book of Whimsy, part of a series inspired by Evans’ interest “in the idea of a Utopian Perfect Language.” It is adorned with mirrors, antique picture frames, and a book. This was one of 26 pieces — one for each letter of the alphabet — that explored “a broad range of topics, including comparative religion, the sciences, philosophy, and his love of the written word.” An excerpt from the show notes offers insight into how Evans thinks his way visually into an idea:

In The Book of Whimsy, Evans explores how simple neural networks — the network of neurons in our brain that help humans process information — work using two books: William Barrett’s On the Threshold of the Unseen, represented by a copy of the book, and Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, represented metaphorically by an assortment of mirrors mounted on the surface with words of Carroll’s Jabberwocky etched in reverse on each mirror as if the viewer is looking through the back of the looking glass. Evans uses both books to signify a “whimsical’ journey where one thing leads to another and how a simple network of words and meaning functions.

Speaking of words, Kangas thinks there’s one that applies to what Evans is up to with his singular brand of conceptual art: pataphysics. One of Evans’ early influences, the French writer Jarry (whose play Ubu Roi is considered a forerunner of Theatre of the Absurd) coined the term “pataphysique,” a tongue-in-cheek philosophy Jarry’s biographer called “the science of imaginary solutions.” Describing Evans’ art, Kangas puts it this way: “Pataphysics is an acceptance of the unknowable in the cloak of specific knowledge; this is a good approach to the art of Dennis Evans.”

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Like several other pieces in the exhibition, The Book of Whimsy specifically explores language, but virtually everything in the show, including those cryptic musical scores from the artist’s Fluxus days, incorporate some kind of text. Some is in English; some appears to be in Latin. On more than one occasion, I found myself scribbling a word in my notebook along with a question mark: Is this actually a word? One does not simply look at these artworks; to engage with them fully, one is obliged to read them, even if it feels like you’re stumbled into Finnegans Wake. Not surprisingly, Evans identifies James Joyce’s Ulysses as a book “everyone’s got to read.”

Joyce, of course, famously declared that the triumph of his most famous novel was that he’d stuffed it with so many enigmas and puzzles that it would keep scholars busy for all eternity. I recalled that anecdote upon reading an intriguing point Kangas makes about text in Evans’ work:

“…[T]aken collectively, the words constitute an important, overlooked facet: the complete body of Dennis Evans’s writing outside, within and upon each artwork. No critic, curator or art historian has yet begun to investigate this body of writing as a whole, which could reveal additional insights into his achievement and the art of our times.” Such a project, he muses, would “constitute deep reading indeed.”

“Dark Matter,” from “The Cosmology Series” (Encaustic on canvas, wood, and glazed porcelain. 60 by 60 inches, 2018, collection of the artist. Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art
“Dark Matter” from “The Cosmology Series” by Dennis Evans (Encaustic on canvas, wood, and glazed porcelain. 60 by 60 inches, 2018, collection of the artist). Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art

It’s not possible to report on this remarkable exhibition without addressing the final leg of Evans’ artistic journey, represented by four pieces in the gallery’s atrium: his obsession with cosmology.

Evans tumbled down that rabbit hole late one night trying to fall asleep by listening to BBC News with earbuds. His lifelong immersion in the humanities notwithstanding, he knew enough about physics to know that the announcement by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland that they had discovered the long-theorized Higgs Boson particle was a game-changer.

“I grabbed Nancy’s leg, and she said, ‘What’s wrong, are you having a heart attack?’ I said, ‘No, but I just heard the work I’m going to do the rest of my life.’ And the next morning I just plowed into it.” Today, he says his art concerns three questions: Where did the universe come from? How did it begin and how will it end? What is the place for Homo sapiens in this universe?

“When people say, ‘Are you an artist now?’ I say ‘No, I’m a cosmologist and I make art about cosmology,’” he said. “This is what artists should be making art about, in my mind.”

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“The Collider,” from “The Cosmology Series” (Encaustic and mixed media on canvas, wood, and brass, 48 by 48 inches, 2021, collection of the artist. Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art
“The Collider” from “The Cosmology Series” by Dennis Evans (Encaustic and mixed media on canvas, wood, and brass, 48 by 48 inches, 2021, collection of the artist). Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art

As with other encaustics plucked from larger installations, the four pieces from The Cosmology Series make one yearn for the whole shebang. Except for two sandstone-colored horizontal strips in one piece, shimmering blacks and splashes of dark green and red dominate, distinguishing them from other pieces in Apocrypha.

Fundamental Particles, a 5-foot-square encaustic on canvas, features what look like pieces of obsidian (glazed porcelain) arranged on shelves. The Collider adds brass that resembles book covers, and the show notes indicate this is Evans’ vision of “what happens every second” the Large Hadron Collider is smashing particles into one another. Evans’ metaphorical visions of Dark Matter and The Standard Model for Particle Physics round out the collection.

Of course, all feature text. Is “cintamani” a real word, I wondered? Indeed it is: It refers to a kind of tekite, gravel-sized pieces of glass formed when a meteorite strikes the Earth’s surface. Dig deeper, and one finds that in some Buddhist and Hindu cultures, these rare items are a wish-fulfilling jewel — the Western equivalent would be a “philosopher’s stone.” If it’s not clear by now, Evans seemingly reads everything.

And that inspired one of my final questions before Evans headed out to prepare for a guided tour that afternoon.

“In all the reading you’ve done, and thinking about this stuff,” I said, “have you arrived at anything that even approximates a ‘theory of everything’?”

“No,” he said immediately, shaking his head. “I have a bench with a bronze plate that says, ‘I don’t know.’ I call it my ‘I Don’t Know’ bench. There’s so much, as I get older, that I don’t know. That’s what the quantum world has taught me. The quantum world has taught me that we really don’t know shit.”

***

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Dennis Evans: Apocrypha is at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through Aug. 31. The exhibition is accompanied by the 2023 book Apocrypha: The Art of Dennis Evans by Seattle art critic Matthew Kangas, 308 pages, published by Utopian Heights Studios. It is available in the lobby for $65. Evans and Nancy Mee will give a free public talk at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the museum.

The museum is located at 700 State St.; hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. General admission is $8, seniors 55 and older $5, children through 17 free. For more information, call 503-370-6855.

An edited transcript of David Bates’ interview with Evans is available online at the writer’s arts and culture Substack, Artlandia.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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