In his self-portraits Tony Bevan lays bare the social face that is presented to the world, peeling it back to reveal an essential essence or fundamental truth. This process is like that of an explorer setting out on a journey into the interior, into that heart of darkness that lurks at the centre of all modern individuals. And the place he arrives at? Well it is one of existential doubt, a place where only more questions can be asked. Where all that is discovered is an approximation. For that is art’s inherent failure. As Alberto Giacometti said “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure”.
In Head the image has become even more deconstructed. The top of the head has gone and the face seems to dissolve and collapse so we are reminded of Wilde’s Dorian Gray portrait hidden in the attic taking on the masks of its subject’s lived experience. All that is left is lurking behind the series of lines that run horizontally across the face, like wire holding down Gulliver or musical staves, is the suggestion of a nose, with its prominent nostrils and mouth. The whole has been reduced to these basic components, the points of inhalation and exhalation, the minimum needed to constitute life, thrust up like some animal snout or someone gasping for air. The image conjures, in its isolation and distress, the articulating mouth in Beckett’s Not I, that itself was suggested, according to Beckett in a letter postmarked 30 April 1974, by Caravaggio’s Decollation of St John in Valetta Cathedral. Bevan has talked of a disembodied sense of existence, which he has experienced several times in the studio, an experience known as ‘autoscopy’, in which a person, while believing himself to be awake, sees his body and the world from a location outside his physical body.
When discussing his work Bevan gives little away other than talking in terms of form and space. He has said that painting is a silent language that he can’t easily talk about. Interpretation is left to others. Yet looking at his piles of rounded stones of boulders it is not hard to read these potato forms as even further reduced references to the head, by now completely disembodied and featureless, hard not to see them as oblique references to skulls found in mass graves from the Holocaust to Screbrenicia to Rwanda. Of course, the paintings are not about these things. Bevan talks of them as simply as piles of stones and the spaces between, but as with all good art they spark the imagination of the viewer and suggest multiple readings.
He likes to work with his drawings and recent paintings all around him, for they act as notes reminding him of particular concerns. To work in an empty studio is uncomfortable. He starts on an un-stretched canvas, often working on the floor on his hands and knees. Much comes though the process of drawing and is suggested by how his material behaves. He tried not to make conscious decisions but rather to allow a steam of consciousness simply to flow. Often the material determines what should be a drawing or a painting. Using the physical resistance of the floor the charcoal splinters and spit to leaves a residue that is then locked in with acrylic medium. It is this unpredictability that he cherishes. Marks are also dependent on how paint is loaded onto the brush as he draws with the paint. The physical quality of his medium is extremely important. For such a mild mannered man these are violently edgy and sensual paintings. It is perhaps for this quality, along with the isolation of the subject within the picture space, as well as the predominance of red and black, that he is so often compared to Bacon.
Following a number of paintings depicting open roofs and rafters he has recently taken to painting what he calls studio furniture. The result is a number of horizontal skeletal structures reminiscent of Tatlin’s famous modernist tower. With their open lattice work of girders they suggest electrical pylons or oil rigs. Yet on closer observation many of the lines do not connect and these edifices, as in Furniture, seem to be on the point of disintegration. Again there are many readings, from the Tower of Babel, to the collapse of modernism. For these images suggest the fragmentation of the holistic grid that was the utopian arena for so much modernist art. There is a quite irony to a painting such as Monument where a Piranesian stack stands in isolation on a red ground like an empty symbol to some discredited dogma; for who in the modern world can believe in monuments now?
In Table Top the studio objects have been parred down to the bone so that the whole resembles, on its spindly legs, a citadel of pagodas and towers, a city of the imagination such as might have been captured in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Its nervy lines also recall something of Giacometti’s Apple on the Sideboard (1937), with its edgy contrasts of light and dark.
Tony Bevan is one of the most authentic and fearless artists working today. He is unafraid of undertaking deep philosophical and psychological investigations. His tough, uncompromising works are raw and profoundly human and no not shirk from showing vulnerability.
Enlightenment thinkers still had the expectation that both art and science could promote an understanding of the world and of the self, as well as defining moral progress and even human happiness. The twentieth century shattered such optimism. This has lead to a reduced space in which artists who want to explore the human condition can operate. By working in a fairly narrow terrain, Bevan’s self-portraits, his roofs, towers and studio furniture, with their charcoal drawing, their single insistent pigments, their lacerations and strange perspectives speak eloquently of what it means to inhabit the contemporary world. “I have,” wrote Albert Camus, “seen many people die because life for them was not worth living. From this I conclude that the question of life’s meaning is the most urgent question of all.”