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Diving into the Abstract: J. Vehar-Evanoff at Modern West Fine Art

In Submerged Reflection, up this month at Modern West Fine Art, the versatile painter J. Vehar-Evanoff moves away from depicting the natural world of animals to abstracted landscapes and unpredictable natural elements. As someone from the West — Vehar-Evanoff was born in Wyoming and raised in Utah —  this recent exploration by the artist of wilderness and weather is an extension of the interests that have always made his work stand out. Additionally, the departure from representational subjects puts him into conversation with forerunners of abstract expressionism who also took inspiration from forces and shapes in the landscapes around them.

Not to be pinned down by rigid themes or repeating subjects, Vehar-Evanoff has explored several different artistic territories and subjects recently. Last year, he showed pieces at Modern West that featured expressionistic animals native to the western United States, works like “Bighorn,” a large oil on canvas that depicts a bighorn sheep made out of intersecting patches of complementary color and concentric circles that visually vibrate. The subject of another painting, “Horse and Rider,” is also suggested by large swaths of color of varying opacities, which makes the pair appear to move within and out of the canvas.

“Submerged II”

Viewers can see some of these signature Vehar-Evanoff techniques in the works that make up Submerged Reflection. Pieces in this exhibit are all on the same large canvases the artist favors — “Untitled I” and “Untitled II” are each 48” x 48”, while “Submerged II” and “Untitled III” are 60” x 48” — are executed in earth tones of umbers and grays and characterized by a vacillating opacity of paint — in places so thinned with Turpenoid or linseed oil one can see through to the canvas. However, in Submerged Reflection, Vehar-Evanoff departs into uncharted visual terrain, leaving behind recognizable, centered subjects and plunging into pure abstract expressionism. The thinness and thickness of the paint, with all of the running and crackling of the material itself, take center stage in “Reflection I” and “Untitled III.” The midsection of “Reflection I,” where discernible subjects might have been in his previous work, is filled with horizontal brushstrokes of raw umber and runs of thinned paint running down the middle. The top two-thirds of “Submerged I” feature the same warm, earthy tones and craggy application of paint of varying thickness.

“Submerged II,” with its great upward sweep of oscillating gray, white, and black brushstrokes, has much in common with J. M. W. Turner’s paintings of turbulent oceans and snowstorms (especially “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”). About Turner, the Tate Modern states, “His experiments in technique – his dogged investigations into what paint can do – as evidenced particularly by his later work, place Turner as a visionary forerunner of later developments in painting, such as impressionism and abstract expressionism.” Vehar-Evanoff seems to be turning to the same exploration of medium, but rooted, like Turner, in the landscape around him.

In addition to thin oil paint, Vehar-Evanoff uses chalk to add visual punctuation to his works. Presented as a diptych, “Untitled I” and “Untitled II” feature chalk strokes that are regularly spaced and nearly vertical. Also over a murky underpainting of thin paint, the black chalk marks of “Untitled II” recede into the background darkness. The white strokes of “Untitled I” stand in contrast to its dark background, almost vertical but curving slightly. Standing back, it’s tempting to see these pieces as closeups of wild animals’ fur or scrubby landscapes recently wasted by forest fire. The muted palette and matter-of-fact chalk create images that seem to come from a world of rough wilderness.

Another piece that features chalk, but uses the medium in a slightly different way, is “Untitled III.” The large canvas has an underpainting of dark umber, gray, and black paint. The brushstrokes are visible but don’t move in the same direction, creating a feeling of shifting movement. In certain places, the paint is almost translucent. On top of this underlayer, the artist has applied white chalk in swirls that look like puffs of cigarette smoke. These white chalk lines create a uniform foreground that enhances and obscures the watery indeterminacy of the dark paint below. This chalk-and-paint piece has an aqueous quality that ties it to the more stormy or fluid pieces in Submerged Reflection.

As Vehar-Evanoff focuses on the raw materials of paint and chalk, and uses applications of them to create big patches of flurried brushstrokes, he leaves representational terrain and addresses the foundational elements of abstract painting. This direction gels with his interest in the western region’s distinctive qualities, as each of the pieces in Submerged Reflection present the powerful roughness of local landscape.

Submerged Reflection is at Modern West Fine Art, 177 E 200 S, Salt Lake City, through July 14.

Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places.

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