Scotland on Sunday
I’m not sure whether Nick Evans had the so-called Mayan Apocalypse in mind when creating his sprawling but rather wonderful new show at Glasgow’s Tramway.
Nevertheless the elaborate temple-like structure he has built to house his sculpture, with its cheeky references to both Mayan and Egyptian pyramids, can’t help but bring to mind that – despite what everyone on Twitter predicted – the world didn’t end recently.
Of course, experts told us the whole scare was nonsense all along. Why do we wilfully misread the history of ancient cultures? Sometimes, perhaps, because we are burdened with the blinkers of racism, stupidity or colonialism. Sometimes because history is truly lost to us. But often, as I suspect in the case of the Mayans, just because it’s fun.
For artists, the near electric charge of the encounter with other civilisations – people whose art seems quicker and fiercer, more succinct or much more subtle than the dusty old museums of Europe – has driven hundreds of years of art-making and thinking.
There’s been honest study and wilful misappropriation. Nick Evans, a Glasgow sculptor, sits somewhere knowingly in this mix. His kitsch but compelling conceit for Solar Eyes, the biggest show of his work to date, is a series of encounters with artworks set in a thick-walled chamber and displayed in increasingly extravagant manners. It’s like entering an ancient tomb and encountering mysterious artefacts from a lost civilisation.
The sculptures themselves will be familiar to anyone who has seen Evans’ recent work. They are dumpy plaster forms, like Henry Moores that have only half-hatched from their shells, or half-baked Barbara Hepworths. They are semi-human, with their drooping pendulous bits or pert appendages. And often they are cut off at the limbs, like the dusty classical statuary they affectionately mock.
At Tramway, these basic forms are dressed in funny new references. The first figure that greets you has huge eyes made from concentric black and white circles. There seem to be obvious links to Niki de Saint Phalle’s “nana” figures, rotund little female goddesses currently on show at Glasgow’s GoMA.
And there are multiple references to Neolithic goddess worship, including that of Avebury, the English site that has been the centre of centuries-long speculation about ancient rites.
The suggestion seems to be that the struggle to make sense or meaning out of exotic cultures, whether that is daftness about the Mayans, or our own distance from the civilisations that built ancient sites in Britain, is not shameful but a genuine encounter.
It’s a quandary that Evans extends to his own art; all this goddess worship is like a secret vice of sculptors, it ensnared Henry Moore and now it’s got Evans by the short and curlies.
Along the way there are many comic encounters. Working with artist Charlie Hammond, Evans has created a dining table complete with half-eaten ceramic food. It puts one in mind of an abandoned meal table at Pompeii. But examining the contents is a little gruesome. The pottery peas are cute, but is that spaghetti or human entrails? I’m sure I spotted an eyeball.
These suggestions of human sacrifice are also, surely, a little essay on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous work The Raw And The Cooked, which suggested that certain mythologies are consistent across widely divergent cultures. Lévi-Strauss’s writings changed the way we think about anthropology and language forever, but it was based on historical accident and on only a few weeks of fieldwork.
The question of sculptural display is similarly lampooned. One work sits on a spinning plinth, like a potter’s wheel, another bears a giant eye that inflates and deflates with phallic pathos.