Evangelyn Edilson is an Ōtautahi Christchurch painter currently completing her Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. In her upcoming exhibition Thalia and The Buskin at City Art Depot, 18 February to 9 March 2020, she takes inspiration from stage arts, using their motifs to explore more personal themes. Cameron Ralston discussed Edilson’s body of work with her in her studio space at the university.
Edilson painting in her studio
Cameron: How long have you been in this space?
Evangelyn: Since March last year. But recently I’ve mostly been painting at home because being in here by myself over the holiday period has been doing my head in. The other Honours students finished up at the end of last year whereas I’ve been doing a full calendar year for my Masters. I’ve been working on this full time for the full year, which is intense. It has its ups and downs, but has been good.
I’ve seen some of your previous body of work which featured even more surreal and twisted forms. Were these part of your Masters?
That was part of my Honours. I see that body of work being drastically different from what I’ve produced here. I think during my Honours year I felt I was producing work as a student towards achieving a certain grade. By switching my thinking to producing work as an artist instead of a student, I’ve thought more about my own voice and what I want to communicate in my work. My Honours paintings were more about technical ability and how far I could take that, whereas this year has been more about the idea. I didn’t really grasp the idea until halfway through the project.
What is that central idea?
I was greatly inspired by Greek mythology and theatre. I started off by producing the mask paintings and playing with, and exploring, comedy and tragedy in Greek theatre, hence bringing through the motifs of the comedic and tragic masks. That then spurred me into this exploration of theatre and performance through circus and stage.
‘Eurydice’, Evangelyn Edilson, oil on cradled board, 180 x 170mm, 2019
Are the masks just about referencing the theatre or is there a tie to modern life that you’re commenting on?
For me, personally, there is a significance to the masks. I think they are a kind of exploration into how identity can be quite performative – like you’re putting on a show and there’s a right way to be happy and a right way to be sad.
Do you have opinions on what those right ways are?
I can only speak for myself and my experiences, but I think sometimes I can get quite wrapped up in my head and in trying to be what people think I am for them. In that way I feel inauthentic, like I’m performing. This year I’ve tried to be more like myself instead of putting on a show. I think people really just want to form true connections with one another. That’s been a personal struggle.
It sounds like that was coming through in your previous art making as well; you mentioned you were trying to please someone else.
Yes, definitely. To get a certain grade. I hadn’t really thought about that until I took a step back and started looking at some of my paintings and thought, ‘Oh goodness, I’ve put a lot of myself into this.’ Which I had been trying to avoid, but suddenly I’m doing it.
So this body of work is a kind of synthesis of your experience as a Masters student?
I think realising that this is it for my study and that after this I’m released into the world as an artist – how do I carry on doing this outside of the University has been a source of great anxiety for me and made art making difficult at times this year. When I’m stressed or anxious I can’t paint particularly well. I’ve had lots of failures this year, lots of paintings I’ve thrown in the bin. I even got George in the workshop to cut up one because I was so frustrated by it – it was a healing process.
Destroying works must have be quite hard for you as your paintings are so meticulously done.
Very meticulous, they take hours to produce. Usually I work from Monday to Sunday, 10 to 5. Each piece has a lot of time invested into it. These larger works might take me four weeks to produce. So, it’s really heartbreaking when one isn’t working out, but sometimes you have to just let it go because including it in the series can drag down the rest of the artworks. That’s been another learning curve for me; just because you put a lot of time into something it doesn’t mean it’ll turn out.
Edilson’s artist studio
Do you have much discussion with other students around your work?
Yes, the postgrad cohort across the disciplines usually meets once a week. It can be studio critiques where we walk about and give each other feedback and at other times it’s in the seminar room where they might have a guest speaker in to talk about their work as an artist or writer. It’s helpful to have that break in your week to talk and connect to others.
Do you get much external analysis on your work as you’re making it?
I guess more so in terms of technique and what the paintings are doing visually, but not so much on the concepts. To be honest, I’ve been quite hesitant to share that as I’m a fairly closed and standoffish person at times. But I realise that those things are what people want from art – something to connect with.
Do you find leaving the institution to be somewhat daunting?
Completely daunting. Like I say, I’ve been working long hours – I realise that’s not sustainable out there working. To be honest, I don’t know how I’ll be able to produce work like this in that setting. It’ll be interesting navigating that and how my practice changes, which could even be for the better.
‘The Ringmaster Extraordinaire with Two Faces’, Evangelyn Edilson, oil on cradled board, 240 x 180mm, 2020
I’m interested in how you see viewers reacting to and interacting with your works.
I’m aware that some are pretty grotesque and creepy, which can be quite jarring. That’s always been an aspect to my works that I can’t seem to avoid. I contrast the disarming qualities of the things I paint against the compelling brightness of the colours, which I hope pulls people in so there’s a kind of push-and-pull going on.
Yes, you play with that tension quite well.
I think I’ve been trying to communicate that tension throughout this body of work. Especially in the areas of black and white versus the colour and the mannequins versus the human figure.
‘Melpomene’, Evangelyn Edilson, oil on aluminium composite panel, 420 x 520mm, 2020
How do the mannequins play into the theatrical themes?
The mannequin is there at a purely visual level to operate as a contrast to the human figure, the surface quality has a shine to it. But conceptually it reveals the inauthenticity of the performer. They act as each other’s foils.
What is the connotation of using the photographic images?
I found the images online and I think they are quite compelling. I like the idea of having a photograph screen-printed onto a sheet of aluminium and to then have that further play against the paint of the actual image.
Aluminium is a fairly non-traditional material to be painting on, isn’t it?
The three larger works are on aluminium, the rest on MDF. I really like working on the aluminium because the smooth surface takes the detail and colour well.
Do you find you reference things outside of art, such as literature and film?
Definitely. I wouldn’t say I do it deliberately but I’m really informed by theatre and movies, anything that is really dramatic. I’m often off in my own head making up narratives so it really helps having my head in that space in order to make these works.
Edilson painting in her studio
Are these real people that you’re painting?
No, but I guess that’s one of the compelling aspects of having the cutouts, that it removes the way you connect with a portrait. They can be anyone you see it to be.
Are you playing with gender in conjunction with identity in these works?
I definitely think some of these faces are androgynous which is something I find appealing. It enables the viewer, whoever it is, to relate to the work and find a point of connection.
Do you see these washy colourfield backgrounds as being a staple of your work?
I struggle greatly with painting backgrounds – they’re my arch nemesis. I see the pours as a way of giving up the control which is so apparent in my paintings. It’s nice to have no control over part of the work.
‘Mica’, Evangelyn Edilson, oil on aluminium composite panel, 520 x 420mm, 2019
Is the title for the exhibition Thalia and The Buskin just a reference to Greek theatre?
Yes, I think it’s another way of communicating the themes of comedy and tragedy. Melpomene and Thalia are two muses – Melpomene the muse of tragedy and Thalia the muse of comedy – and a buskin was what tragedy actors wore.
How are the works themselves titled?
I’ve looked at Greek mythology, Greek theatre and circus acts which have greatly informed how I make the works.
Are you naming them after they’ve been painted as a reaction to the mood of them?
Exactly, yeah. Seeing the mood they inhabit helps me to then know how to name them. When I paint I usually listen to a lot of Greek mythology podcasts so I’m constantly having that information fed to me.
Has Greek mythology always been something you’ve been interested in?
Definitely in my teenage years it started to become an interest of mine. As a child my mother read a lot of fairy tales to me so it was a somewhat natural progression to move into Greek mythology which is more for adults. It deals with some heavy stuff.
Did you go to any live shows during the making of the works?
Yes, I did. I was lucky enough to go with my family to the States where we saw a musical called Hadestown about Persephone, Hades, Orpheus and Eurydice. I’m completely obsessed with it, I was listening to the soundtrack on repeat as I was painting. It’s really informed my practice through exploring relationships for example between that of an older couple versus one that’s younger and how it almost acts as a cautionary tale of what they could become. Seeing that gave me a ‘Yes! I’m inspired!’ moment.
Is it inspiring in terms of visual material as well?
I think in terms of subject matter instead of visual. There’s some really punchy lyrics that got me.
You include parts of the stage in your paintings such as the curtain, staircase and circus pedestal.
I definitely wanted those motifs in my works to allude to where these theatrics are playing out.
Do you sketch or plan out the paintings before committing to a composition?
I do plan but I’m not good with Photoshop or technology so I do everything in Word documents, which is a disaster. But it gives me enough of an idea about how they will piece together. Sometimes I’ll see a really great image and it’ll just come to me and other times I have an idea formed but can’t find the image to paint for it.
Has the idea of having a show informed some of the works?
Yeah, I think I’ve really tried to make a tightknit and cohesive body of work where there’s repetition of colour, motifs and a general feel. I want it to all make sense when viewed together.