New York

Minnie Evans

Luise Ross Gallery

Though honored with a Whitney retrospective as early as 1975, it is only with the current embrace of the cultural “other” that Minnie Evans, an African-American artist from North Carolina, has had a chance to be understood as more than simply an art novelty. Evans belongs to the tradition of religious visionaries that includes James Hampton, J.B. Murray, and Sister Gertrude Morgan, among many others. Her oeuvre—a patchwork of Evangelical Christianity, African-American spiritualism, improvisation, and popular culture—was well represented in this show, which featured works ranging from the ’40s to the ’70s, her primary years of activity.

Evans’ cultural milieu was that of the Evangelical South. This tradition, coupled with less obvious but equally important influences from her Afro-Carribean ancestry, provided a strong grounding for the richly improvisational nature of the artist’s essentially scripture-based, apocalyptic message. In an untitled crayon-and-oil painting on paper from 1972, winged angels and beasts interact in a mythical setting. presided over by an ornately decorated, omniscient face that gazes out at the viewer. In another painting from 1966, the artist collaged elements of two previous works to unite Caucasian angels and Hindu-like divinities within a decorative mandala. Despite its Christian framework, this painting uncannily evokes Indian and Tibetan religious art, while others feature the unmistakable face of Fu Manchu. With the exception of her penchant for white angels, Evans experimented with physiognomies to create an ideal, heavenly world, free of race and gender hierarchies—some of these centrally placed. majestic, brown faces are female. Ultimately, hers is an expression of an intuitively universalist world view, something that early theosophical and subsequent Jungian modernists have striven self-consciously for half a century to achieve.

Many works here revealed Evans to be an accomplished abstractionist, and, while largely inspired by flowers and plants, they improve on nature through pure invention. In this, Evans’ work recalls the “martian” landscapes of the celebrated Swiss medium Helene Smith, but is closer in spirit and intention to the animated, often anthropomorphic mountains and seascapes of Joseph Yoakum. Like Yoakum, Evans envisioned a world literally alive with divine presence, and while this is tentatively expressed in her sparse pen-and-crayon drawings of the ’40s, it is fully realized in the full-blown riot of colors and interlocking shapes characteristic of her paintings from later decades. Though usually contained within symmetrical, Rorschach-like compositions, an exception to this format is the allover, asymmetrical arrangement of vegetation, rainbows, butterflies, and paisleys in Deisinge (design) Airlie Garden, 1965. These swirling, floral abstractions are emblematic of Evans’ visionary message, in which she simultaneously identifies and strives to mirror an infinitely creative God through her own creative activity.

While the self-taught, visionary nature of her work is indeed a mark of difference to be explored, this exploration should take place within the more comprehensive debate on cultural and gender difference. Ultimately, the unselfconscious, visionary element Evans and others represent effectively complements the equally necessary political approach to exploring cultural identity in art.

Jenifer P. Borum