Pam Evelyn, Fertility, 2022 , oil on linen, 360 cm × 240 cm

In Conversation:

Pam Evelyn and Matthew Higgs

Coinciding with the opening of her debut exhibition with Pace, A Handful of Dust, artist Pam Evelyn talks with Matthew Higgs, Director of White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art space.

Matthew Higgs: The British jazz critic Richard Cook (1957-2007) once said: “I think writing about music is one of the hardest things you can do. Describing a piece of music in a way which isn’t either cliché-ridden or merely fanciful is desperately difficult. I suppose if I have any advice to offer, it’s the simple truth that you have to listen properly, and hard, and ask yourself what is going on and why.” Does Cook’s dilemma resonate with your approach to painting?

Pam Evelyn: Totally. Listening to Miles Davis or John Coltrane improvise enabled me to better understand different modes of and approaches to painting. It gave me a way in. There is an assumption that the maker always understands what they are doing, yet despite the amount of time I’ve invested in this idea there’s always an unknowable, even alienating, relationship to the canvas. Not being able to describe something can often feel debilitating, however when listening to John Coltrane all my anxiety around the need for explanation or reason melts away. The diversions and vitality within the music are almost hypnotizing, possessed with a cutting and visceral tenderness that touches on the personal yet shared realities of life. It is a similar sensation to how I feel when listening to the solo in Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’. Clare Torry’s solo was totally improvised during that recording. It is such an extraordinary moment in music, and perhaps the closest to an ‘explanation’ of the ecstasy sometimes experienced when painting.

MH: How would you describe your work’s relationship with language?

PE: After you have painted for some time, the act of painting itself becomes autobiographical. In my case the tensions in my touch and in my gestures are totally subservient to my circumstances, to how my day is going for example, or to the context I find myself in, etc. I don’t tinker with this too much, I like to allow life to affect things. It’s a nuanced and subtle process, especially as nothing is being depicted or identified in my work. I am fascinated by how A.R. Penck developed his own language in painting—his signature floating symbols—and even though I can’t exactly ‘translate’ them, I still feel capable of ‘reading’ his work. While there is less of an obvious or explicit code to decipher in my paintings, I do have this muscle memory resulting from repetition, the repeated activity of painting, which over time lends itself to an idiosyncratic and personal language of touch, feeling, tone, etc. I’ve been interested in thinking about the mouth recently: thin skin that surrounds great expression. The manipulation of sound. The tongue as a moistened muscle with potential for great tenderness or violence in expression. I feel around the fleshy borders of my mouth like I feel around the borders of a canvas, a blindness, a kind of finding through feeling.

MH: You recently had a residency in Newlyn, Cornwall. How did that experience impact or influence your approach?

PE: I went to Cornwall for an escape, to romantically hold hands with the en plein air easel painters. I was working in a studio built by a painter called Stanhope Forbes who designed the studio to be as close as possible to the elements. I did this for total isolation. Surprisingly, what I found was a community. Painting in a pool of natural light with a huge expanse of view beyond transformed both my focus and pace. I like to think that I keep things fluid enough for a sense of place and my circumstances to penetrate the handwriting of a painting. Painters need to be in their own company for long stretches of time, this period—although at times lonely—challenged my ability to do this.

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Pam Evelyn's studio, details, 2023, photo by Robert Glowacki © Pam Evelyn, courtesy Pace Gallery

MH: How conscious are you of the potential viewer during the process of making of the work? What responsibilities—if any—do you have to the viewer/audience?

PE: For two years I painted in my parents’ garden, where my only audience was my cat. I was waitressing at the time, and my painting felt charged from pushing against the long tedious shifts at work. In hindsight this was the most important moment for my painting. My hunger to get out of that situation drove me to tirelessly scrutinise the work that I was making. I mention this because during that period I had no time to consider a viewer, simply because they didn’t exist. I had little spare time, so what time I had was dedicated solely for painting, it was a form of survival. The idea of the viewer is a more recent addition to the conversation. I don’t feel the need to instruct. I change my mind about paintings all the time, so I assume that the viewer will too.

MH: To paraphrase Cook, would an ideal viewer of your work “look properly, and hard,” in order to ask themselves what is going on in the work, and why?

PE: I can almost look too hard and too long, afraid to cut that emblematic cord and move on from a painting. I’d like to think that such scrutiny asks to be reciprocated with a similar commitment from the audience. The paintings have often lived in the studio for months being altered and changed. So while there is an impulsive aspect to the work, there has also been long periods of time where my main activity has been to look, to calculate, to critique, etc. The actual physical application of the paint often takes much less time than the time spent looking and thinking.

MH: I can’t think of any artist who arrived at abstraction without first having made figurative or representational art. Was this the case for you?

PE: My work was read as abstraction very early on. I think of myself as a landscape painter, but where the landscape might more accurately be described as a “mindscape”: the outcome of being removed from any direct subject. A Handful of Dust includes paintings made in Newlyn and paintings made in London: two completely different environments to work in. Fertility was made during my time in Newlyn. I was surrounded by wildlife and wanted to translate this energy. It was more of a direct translation, observing from nature almost. When I returned to London the work became more internalised, a kind of echo from within. I like the dynamics of both approaches coexisting in this show. I am very interested in painters such as Jacques Villon or Jean Fautrier, who so evidently had a risky shift into abstraction. Unlike me where I started making abstract paintings early on, with life drawing being the only exception. I look at such painters and how they evolved and feel very sensitive to their decisions to change. I think it’s a brave thing to do in painting. The tough part for me is that because my paintings are not pre-planned or designed there can be an inevitable combustion or failure. This can be very hard. My paintings are almost the accumulative healing from scars of failed attempts to realise a form. Sometimes I feel there are too many possibilities and I want to do them all on one canvas. It’s taken me a while to loosen up and not try to direct a painting, now I can do this more naturally. Becoming too familiar with a painting you almost see what you want to see instead of what’s really happening.

MH: As a young artist, making non-representational art, how conscious of “style” are you as your work evolves? Or put another way, how aware are you of what makes a “Pam Evelyn”? And is it possible to describe those characteristics?

PE: I like to think about a clarity, a boiled-down and stripped-back delivery, a desire to find what is at the core. Shedding away any camouflage or finesse. I think a style is the result of real commitment to looking, but it’s not the goal or end game. A patient awareness of what’s going on in the painting and then a commitment to addressing and taking it further. I think there are many possibilities unfolding in my own paintings as well as evidence of a painterly handwriting that is becoming more familiar. I see this as the gradual result of repetition and long hours painting daily, and a sort of familiarity occurs, and this is again something that’s probably inevitable but just as much a trap. It’s when a style turns into a lazy crutch that a painting can almost become slick. I never feel complacent in the studio, each painting always offers up new problems. I have an entanglement within my paintings that prevents me from seeing the paintings so obviously. I think the reason why I am so interested in landscape painters is the evidence of an ostensible subject, this notion to depict followed by a giving in and a giving up, and allowing the paint to interrupt. In Giorgio Morandi’s landscapes you see the bushes dissolve into just a line loosely describing. I find this touches on the nature of our relationships with place more directly than, say, a photorealistic painting of a tree. So I think that’s where my paintings sit.

MH: When you look at a work of your own from, say, three years ago, what do you see or feel? Has your relationship with your earlier paintings shifted?

PE: I don’t look back too much, and I don’t have a very nostalgic mindset. I think that’s more of a hurdle for artists as they get older and as they have more of a past to negotiate. But with this in mind, when I do look back at my own paintings, it’s more about what they propose to me in terms of boundaries and how I might break through them. Earlier work of mine was often like a wrestle with a subject, a rationale and then finding the confidence to apply the paint. There are also autobiographical circumstances that come into it: a lot of my past work was done in-between jobs, when my financial situation was different, and thinking about what a tube of paint would represent then. I hold onto the nature of where those paintings came from. It’s not possible to recreate those earlier circumstances or environments, but I think there is probably still a lot to unpack from those paintings. My lifestyle for the last 5 years involved a lot of sacrifices for painting. I couldn’t afford to live and work in London, so I lived out of my studio for about three years, occasionally stopping in hotel rooms. It was tough, but I also liked how I could hop around London casually with no real ties.

MH: I’m curious as to how the idea of “experience” relates to your process? Of how the momentum of the work is informed by its own—relatively recent—history, and the legacy of its making?

PE: I think one of the great things about my work only having a relatively recent history is that there’s not so much baggage, it’s mainly just looking ahead. A drive forward. My life has been quite loaded for someone at 27 and I embrace this in paint. I look a lot at painters who died young. Egon Schiele died at age 28, which wasn’t at all uncommon, so there was an urgency early on. My urgency is fueled by many different things. I’ve always seen my 20s as a time to fully commit and devote myself to painting.

Matthew Higgs is an artist, writer and curator based in New York. He is currently the Director of White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art space.


Portrait of Pam Evelyn in studio, 2023, photo by Robert Glowacki © Pam Evelyn, courtesy Pace Gallery

  • Essays — In Conversation: Pam Evelyn and Matthew Higgs, Sep 8, 2023