Gwen Evans is a Welsh born oil painter currently working within Manchester's fast growing arts ecology based at Paradise Works. Her work focuses on manipulating the human form to create an impression of the uncanny or bizarre.
Since graduating from Manchester School of Art in 2018 she has reached soaring heights within the cities art scene firstly by being awarded a studio bursary by Paradise Works but by also receiving Curators Choice at the Royal Cambrian Academy, second prize in the Urdd Art Scholarship, The Great Air Award from The Air Gallery and shortlisted for the Jorge Aguilar-Agon Student Artist Award. These come alongside exhibiting in The Biscuit Factory, Waterfront Gallery, Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, Welsh Assembly Building, Portico Library, The Manchester Contemporary, HOME and many more.
The HOME open exhibition of 2022 was a turning point - or so it seems - for Gwen with her piece 'Portrait of a Woman' taking centre stage of he exhibition and the adjoining digital campaign, a small glimpse into the surreal character based world that Gwen has created.
She has been a tenant of Paradise Works since 2018 when she won a studio bursary and has stuck around ever since. Her role with the studios is now as marketing and membership coordinator. Day to day includes internal communications with artists and directing the artistic direction team, a group of 5 artists that act as the voice of the tenants and the community of Paradise Works.
We caught up with her to learn all about her practise and what her time at the studios has been like. Listen in here -
How do you describe your practise?
My practise at the moment is a merging between historical references, historic painting formats and contemporary imagery to create a duality between classic and contemporary aspects of painting. By doing that I want to create ambiguous work, in the respect that it can't be placed within a specific time or era.
The narratives are left quite ambiguous as well....... oh, and I am an oil painter!
So... I am an oil painter and I have always in been interested in painting a figure and I think people could look at my figures as very emotionless but there is an undercurrent of emotion in my work, more specifically with previous work like 'Feeling Green' and 'By The Seaside'. They both have feelings of dread and anxiety as an undercurrent and surreal and uncanny elements are also incorporated. Some images use these feelings in very overt ways whereas others do the same in more subtle ways.
'Feeling Green' 2019
Some of the work could be described as semi-autobiographical because they are all based on my family members. A lot of them don't look like real people and more like characters. I don't have a real interest in painting realistic depictions of people, it's more about either referencing a specific time period of painting or conveying an atmosphere of emotion.
How has your Welsh heritage inspired or defined your practise?
I think in some works there is a definite nod to my Welsh background but generally it comes through subconsciously as a lot of the work uses imagery from my childhood. My work is quite pattern and textile heavy, I grew up in a family that were very interested in textiles and generally I found that there is a creative community that is interested in textiles in Wales.
For example, the paintings I am working on at the moment are using William Morris patterns, which was around me a lot when I was at home. My painting 'Objects on a Mantlepiece' feature objects and wallpaper that were taken from my nan's home and so I think the objects and the imagery that surrounded me as a child have really filtered into the work. There is definitely a nostalgic element to the work and maybe that is something that I'm interested more in pursuing in the future, like referencing my Welsh heritage and bringing the Welsh language into it more, as it was my first language.
'Objects on a Mantlepiece' 2018
Evan: It's great to see a real resurgence of Welsh identity coming back into artistic formats with many musicians and film makers using Welsh language. I have noticed that there have been a lot of reoccurring figures within your work, do you paint from still life?
Gwen: All my paintings are of my family members or close friends, they all just sit for me and I boss them about! So I generally take their photo and then sketch from the photograph and then sketch from the sketch. That way the paintings are from a sketch rather than a photograph, I think sometimes you can tell and so I like them to be a little more like characters.
From 'Objects on a Mantlepiece' to 'Portrait of a Woman' how has your post graduate output changed in that time?
I think that in a way that my output has slowed down a little bit because the way I paint is a little slower now, if you were to ask my friends they would say I was slow at painting at uni anyway! In uni I was painting wet on wet but works like 'Portrait of a Woman' and recent works I'm using a Verdaccio technique which is a grey and green underpainting to the skin. You let that fully dry and then glaze red on top and let that dry and then yellow on top and let that dry and it builds up to the colour of skin, it's meant to make more it more realistic. I've definitely not done myself any favours by choosing a technique that is so slow.
'Portrait of a Woman' 2021
In that way my work has become more refined, it's a slower way of working. I think when I left uni my work was very much surreal exploring painting the idea of people as objects, I was looking at Michaël Borremans and he said he preferred painting people as objects because it gave him permission to paint them in a different way rather than a realistic depiction.
And so I then painted these weird characters that had been physically transformed into objects like 'Feeling Green' or maybe figures that looked more like dolls or masks rather than people. Now I feel that my work is doing it in a more subtle way and it's not as surreal but still with those undercurrents, just not as overt and more about the history of painting rather than being uncanny and that.
So what is the story behind 'Portrait of a Woman'?
I've been really interested in early Italian Renaissance paintings and I was looking at Giacometti and Piero della Francesca and I guess the stylised way in which they painted people made them not look like people and I was really drawn to that, painting people like objects. I also really like these really severe profile portraits from the early Italian Renaissance, I like the relationship between areas of depth and flatness and how they create tension in the work. So that's what I'm trying to do in that piece. Create this quite flat illustrative background with a face that has quite a lot of depth but then this strange flatness to the hair with this sort of 00's inspired fluffy jumper. It's a really surreal amalgamation of stuff.
Evan: It's funny that you earlier mentioned that you wanted you work to look like it wasn't made in a specific era because that's exactly what I feel when I see this piece, I could take a swing at when it was made but you could never tell. Is this also a family member?
Gwen: Yeah, this is my sister Hypnos. There are other pantings that also feature my sister but they don't look like the same person, they are more stylised in different time periods of painting. The one I'm painting at the moment is my sister and her boyfriend and it's going to be a couples diptyque. That's also looking at diptyque paintings that were made after marriage in early Italian Renaissance.
I don't think I've noticed till recently but I think this obsession with painting family members and reoccurring themes from childhood is a lot about nostalgia and relationships.
'Four Moments of Reflection' and 'Ornament' 2018
So when did your relationship begin with Paradise Works?
I graduated in 2018 and got a studio here through a graduate studio bursary which Paradise Works do every year, they offer a studio to a Salford Uni and a Manchester School of Art student along with mentoring for a year and that's how I initially joined and I've stayed here ever since.
Now aI work I work as the marketing and membership coordinator! Initially I remember volunteering on their opening night so it's funny where I've ended up. I've definitely received a lot of support from Hilary and Lucy and all the other studio members here.
Evan: That's so lovely! Have you got any highlight or special memories from Paradise Works?
Gwen: I think the highlight has been the mutual support that I felt from the other studio members. There are and have been some really great painters here and they've been really generous with their knowledge and their resources and I've been able to go into their studios and have a nosey around and pester them. I have also received some mentoring from them as well so I feel like I have learnt a lot from just going into their studios and seeing their work at different stages instead of just finished.
It's also great that if you need help with anything there is always somewhere here who is happy to do so. I wanted to make a specific style of frame and just didn't know how, so I went to Kieran, who is a sculptor, and asked how do I do this? So for me the peer support is the real highlight.
What are your thoughts of the art scene in Manchester?
I think I've not got anything to compare it to but I do feel that there is a really strong artist led communities here and artist led gallery spaces. I know a lot of have closed but compared to other places it definitely got a lot, you've got places like OA, PS Mirabel, PaintingWriting, Rogue, Depot, Bankley and loads I probably wont name them all. Within that I do think there is a generous culture that you might not find in other places, specifically down South.
When I was in university me and a few friends set up a painting collective called Cat Flap Collective, which I'm still a part of now. We put on exhibitions in Manchester and Jack and Richard of PS Mirabel saw some of those exhibitions and they invited to take over their underground space for a year and so we put on exhibitions every six weeks. After curating that space and talking with some of the artists we worked with some of the people were so grateful as they would have never of got the chance in London.
There's quite a lot of opportunity for people coming out of uni in Manchester.
What's coming up for you in the future?
I've got a solo exhibition coming up at HOME, still unconfirmed date. That's a really big thing for me so I'm trying hard to get a body of work together for that. Then I'll be working on an Arts Council bid in and I wanted to do some residencies as I haven't done any yet, I think that will be big for my development.
''Ar Lan Y Môr' (By the Sea Side)'
Within Paradise Works there is The British Art show where we are having an event on May 25th where we will be having an exhibition in the main gallery, Intersection curated by Will Marshall. It's also our 5th birthday so we will be having open studios, DJ, food, party vibes.
Can you recommend us some things to check out in Manchester?
One of the things I was going to recommend was The British Art Show!
This is something that I wish that I knew when I graduated, if you're just out of uni and don't have any money then in the Central Library they have Macs there that have Photoshop and all the other programs there that you can use for free.
The last one is the Barbakan Bakery in Chorlton, it's the best bakery in Manchester! I always like to get a chocolate cannoli but then the meat is great too, sorry for any vegans!
So now you've learnt about the back story of Gwen Evans you can go out and see her work in upcoming events including 'A Modest Show' which has already started across the city in a variety of venues up till September and at her upcoming solo show at HOME. Check out her website for any other information.