While wandering around the courtyard of a temple in the Chinese district of Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province in 2007, Tony Bevan was struck by the sight of an ancient tree. The 63-year-old English painter immediately took a sketch, dazzled by its wiry majesty and weighty presence.
The ensuing series of large, acrylic and charcoal laden canvases – entitled Trees – form half of the dozen on show at Ben Brown Fine Arts, while the other six are made up by his Archives series, which depicts a variety of curious, mystical bookshelves. Both take up the mantle of Bevan’s early themes of memory and extreme psychological states, and fold ambiguously into each other: every tree’s rings document its age, the stacks of the archive are constructed from wood, while humanity’s hitherto greatest form of recording is paper.
These are simple, yet compelling works. Although Bevan no longer depicts the human figure, these new pieces are very much cerebral, with the indelible marks of the mind. He mixes his own acrylic paint, adding grit or sand to the solution, conjuring up vibrant, chromatic hues, energetically etching out charcoal layers, which are then supplemented by expressionistic layers of paint.
Bevan’s trees are pigmented and skeletal. Small branches cross like elbows, larger ones coil and twist. His apparent exoticism with regards to China is transmuted through rough scarlett bark, burnt umber tree trunks, and highly-saturated purple details. They almost sparkle and twinge with life, as maroon and vermilion team together on yet another tree. These objects appear almost in a vacuum, but for the fragments of detritus flecked over the canvas, and the undoubtable, upward-flowing lifeforce that they convey.
Trees variously looks like membranes, capillaries or bronchioles, whereas Archives resemble bodily cells under the microscope. Inspired by Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Library of Babel’, a short story about a labyrinthine repository of books, Archives fill the canvas, suggesting infinity beyond what is revealed. With lilting books and prominent lines cleaving the canvas, this is no utopian vision.
Trees and Archives together render a bleak vision. The bookshelves feature labels without names, referencing an information era that archives all but provides the illusion of anonymity. The images are two-dimensional and uncanny, on which snapped pieces of charcoal lie on the canvas and shadows mark a sinister revisionism. In them, Bevan has created works that are literary and eloquent, but at the same time, graphic and visceral.
Tony Bevan: Trees And Archives – Ben Brown Fine Arts – until 3 January 2015
Words: Peter Yeung © Artlyst 2014 photo courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts all rights reserved