In a 2002 article for Variant magazine, entitled ‘Tired of the Soup du Jour?’, Nick Evans voices his concerns about the ‘new formalism’ identified by the artist and critic JJ Charlesworth. Evans argues that the methods of artists working within this ‘new formalism’ are not in any real sense new. He adds that—for reasons ranging from a confused relationship with gallery politics to an over-reliance on glibly-coded allusion, valid only in an hermetically sealed art world—what they do isn’t quite formalism either.
Of course, to offer a single-paragraph précis of Evans’ lengthy argument is to gloss over its subtleties, and Evans has latched onto those subtleties in his new work. The show’s title, Some Newer Formalisms, might at first seem a strident statement of intent, signalling that Evans is about to correct what he sees as the failings of new formalism, but there is a question mark missing from the phrase. It signals only that Evans’ investigation of formalism, new or otherwise, is ongoing. This questioning is made more explicit in the text that accompanies the exhibit. The ‘Sound Of Splitting Hairs’, a selfreferential piece of writing, addressed directly to the reader, is repeated in a crudely misspelled but still legible version to remind us that words ‘are easily corrupted with surprisingly little disruption to their status as discrete informationcarrying units’. This text also posits that it is ‘largely unimportant compared to the work itself’. Unimportant, maybe, but not irrelevant. With a dry quip of an explicatory note, Evans is deliberately questioning, if not undermining, his position with regard to formalism.
And so to the forms. ‘Models x, y, z’ are heavilyworked terracotta sculptures. Two are squat and looping, one towering; all three are glazed with assured fields of bright colour, and hesitant drips, the mechanics of their manufacture to the fore. On the walls opposite hang twists of paper rope coated in dark resin, with more drips, this time struggling upwards, making it impossible to avoid the instant association with thorny briars, or barbed wire—a backwards nod, perhaps, to the oldest of formalisms, Plato’s uncertain notion of eidos.
In the next space lie ‘Pieces of the dialectical terror machine’. This title is the clearest indication yet that Evans is placing himself between thesis and antithesis, with synthesis unwanted, or nowhere in sight. This uncertainty is unavoidable when faced with the two sculptures. Either lumpen or monumental, heavy boulders of light polystyrene are mounted on rusted steel frames, open analogues to the plinths on which ‘Models x, y, z’ sit next door.
This is dizzying stuff. Evans revels in contradiction, turning a glob of clay into a fragile tower, pairing post-minimalism with unabashed maximalism, offering contextual material that denies its own import, and, ultimately, making work that is placed firmly in an art-historical context and yet revels in the revelation of its own making.
Jack Mottram is a Glasgow-based arts writer