THE AIM OF DRINKING IS PHILIP GUSTON, reads a tiny handwritten line in Simon Evans’s The Hell of Addiction,2013, BUT THE RESULT IS DENNIS QUAID. This strange, regret-filled assertion is but one among hundreds in a work that is at once a drawing, a collage, and a map, crowded with text imparting self-help advice (THE CENTER OF ADDICTION IS SELF-DECEPTION), messages of despair (OBSESSIVE NEUROTIC ACTIVITY KEEPS TRAUMA AT BAY. THIS IS NOT TRUE), and what occasionally feels like absolute truth (I FUCKING LOVE DRUGS, GIVE ME DRUGS). These wry statements flood the imaginary neighborhood that Evans calls the “jazz district,” in a crowded, palimpsest-like diagram heavily worked and reworked using tape and correction fluid, where the streets are inhabited by ghostly outlines of buildings, furniture, and people. Though the work flirts with incoherence, its anti-logic begins to double back on itself in a way that suggests a kind of sense.
Words and more words and occasionally the absence of words are the hinges of Evans’s psychogeography, which the Brooklyn-based British artist produces in collaboration with his wife, Sarah Lannan. This exhibition was paced by four large works (made variously in 2013 and 2014) created from paper and found objects patched together in grids that are frequently and rather cheerfully violated by all manner of the crushed, dirty, randomly folded, and torn. One of the four is dominated by white paper and items such as a set list, a passive-aggressive note, play money, receipts, and paper plates, with a none-too-clean piece of gauze pasted over a section of it. Another, mostly blank, contains gridded, ruled, and ledger paper, as well as the patterned insides of envelopes; still another is the yellow of legal paper and Post-it notes; and the last one, whatever it is made up of, is almost entirely obscured by different black materials—something waxy, something plasticky, something shiny—so that very little can be read. These works contain annotations upon annotations, corrections upon corrections, more self-help bromides, more philosophical musings, and the results swerve from catholic chattiness to a kind of wholesale devouring of the world and then, in the expanses of blank paper and in the black work, to a silence as deep as death. But they are not only about words: A poster hung high above the gallery reception desk trumpeted THE PURE UNWRITTEN MOMENT. In other works we could focus on the individual found materials; from farther back there was a soothing or numbing visual white noise, an aesthetic of hoarding, or of marginalia gone berserk.
These written and typed fragments may be physically fragile, but in Evans’s constructions they become tense and powerful. R.I.P.s, 2012, which enumerates the names of the dead—Etta James, Mike Kelley, cargo pants—in tiny, spidery letters, is a work of compressed feeling and helplessness, a terrible and devotional litany of loss, despite the jokes. By flooding so much stuff with even more stuff, Evans paradoxically creates a void. In part from horror vacui, in part from amused acknowledgment of this emptiness, he writes, corrects, fills in, corrects again, like Thomas Bernhard’s Roithamer, until what remains both celebrates the fullness of existence and leaves one in despair at all the noise. One thinks of outsider artist Howard Finster and the way he swung back and forth between saying everything and saying nothing. With his questionable maxims, with the philosophy that lands just to the left of sense, with grids composed of ephemera given second life, Evans, too, goes to the brink of meaning and then backs away, as though meaning were too important to be divulged in the first place.