Strewn around the floor of his Hastings studio are paper images, torn out of books, of many Old Master paintings from which British painter Jake Wood-Evans takes inspiration. It might be Turner, Stubbs, Landseer, Gainsborough or Constable. Over a period of time, the pages have become creased, torn and splattered with paint, which the artist admits, makes them more interesting.
This is the key to Wood-Evans’s new exhibition, Legacy and Disorder at Unit London, his third at the gallery. He has re-appropriated a selection of portrait paintings from one of his idols, Thomas Gainsborough, plus a few others including Joshua Reynolds, George Romney and John Hoppner, to create something that retains the essence of the originals yet produces a somewhat startling effect for the modern digital age.
What the artist has done is to emulate the Old Masters in terms of detail, composition and technique. In this large series of oil paintings, you see the fineness of their attire and echoes of the luscious, swirling landscapes in which Gainsborough set his subjects. However, Wood-Evans eviscerates part of the works by scraping away much of the paint, thereby obscuring a lot of the detail. In particular, all the paintings have been literally defaced. “I wanted to evoke an atmosphere”, he says. “If I’d put in the face, it would have become about the person.”
The atmosphere he creates is a curious blend of figuration evoking a bygone era, and abstraction that places it very much in the now. The paintings become ethereal and mystical as well as enigmatic, leaving the viewer with plenty to chew on.
There’s a political aspect here too. Wood Evans is aware of the propaganda aspect of Gainsborough’s subjects showing off their power, money and status. Dissolving their appearance is a comment on the fragility of their wealth and privileged position.
Though Wood-Evans doesn’t emphasise this point, it’s quite interesting to me how a degree of social comment has been passed down, albeit subconsciously perhaps. Gainsborough would, in subtle ways, satirise some of his subjects, giving them an air of arrogance or puffed-up pretentiousness.
Even his most famous work, The Blue Boy, which Wood-Evans reinterprets in three separate ways, and viewed as a triptych, was cocking a snook at his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds who believed blue should be relegated to a minor colour.
In Wood-Evans’s versions, he plays around with the light, a technique he’s very good at and one he acquired through extensive research. Wood-Evans holds a fine art degree from Falmouth University but it was a scholarship he won from the Royal Academy to study the classics at the Prado museum in Madrid that had a profound effect on his painting.
He became immersed in the works of Velasquez, Rubens, Goya, Rembrandt et al. He spent months drawing. Drawing remains the foundation of his pieces. Pencil marks are often visible on the canvases. “After spending eight hours studying one painting, you get a connection to it. The more I know, my relationship to it builds up and I love it even more.”
Steeped in art history, Wood-Evans could even decipher the influences on those artists he had come to love, van Dyck on Gainsborough, for example. His own technique in this exhibition is expressed in smooth, glossy finishes with a thin application of paint. They harbour an intense richness of perspective which he achieves through his use of colour and light. The partly abstract nature of the work might suddenly be anchored by a booted foot that provides pictorial depth. There are reminders of Francis Bacon here as well as Mark Rothko of whom Evans-Wood is an admirer.
Legacy and Disorder is, as Wood-Evans has pointed out, akin to a music re-mix. It depends upon the original yet remains as art. The drawback is that the exhibition as a whole serves up too many paintings on the exact same theme. With such a refined technique and a keen sense of art history both ancient and modern, I can’t wait to see future Jake Wood-Evans shows where the balance has shifted more towards him than towards his idols.
Legacy and Disorder is showing at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, London W1S 1HD until 15 June 2019
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.