Evan Nesbit: A Trip and some “Gardening”

WEEKEND sits down with painter Evan Nesbit ART ’12 to talk about process, symbols and Northern California attitudes.

Q. First of all, what exactly is the Painting and Printmaking program at Yale’s School of Art, and how did you end up there?

A. The School [of Art] is kind of unique in that it differentiates mediums, and the department is divided that way. For Painting and Printmaking, the history and syntax of painting becomes important — it’s really a department for students who seek conversation about or around painting. It’s kind of a loose scattershot group of primarily painters and printmakers, but even some people who are straight up sculptors. I came in as a painter, for the program’s focus on painting. I felt like that was important for me.

Q. Many of the pieces in your MFA exhibit seem to feature many colors of paint loaded onto pieces of burlap. How did you create these, and what were you hoping to accomplish?

A. A lot of the paintings in my thesis show contain images that are driven by the material process I use. I was interested in the idea of working a painting backwards — so kind of flipping the thought process. All of the paintings are painted backwards. I painted them backwards through the burlap, so it was like a traditional easel painting but the painting was faced backwards, and gravity pulled the paint through to the other side. The finished image is the process turned around and then set on the wall. A common analogy would be a philosophical approach to image-making rather than thinking of myself as a draftsman … it’s more like trying to foster the conditions in which the work occurs.

Q. Ok, but the piece called “Gardening” was really different from these. It features a few scant painted designs of what looks like marijuana leaves on a piece of burlap rather than piles of paint loaded onto a canvas. Why?

A. “Gardening” is me taking a step back, distilling a few visual ideas where each little image is brushed very specifically — not like the head-over-heels approach that I used in pieces like “Stony” where I literally took pounds of paint and pushed it through the back of a canvas. In pieces like “Stony,” things are sort of out of my control when the painting is really happening. But “Gardening” is not about the unexpected; it’s about manicurity and fostering a proper set of conditions for more indulgent paintings.

Q. What do the images of “Gardening” represent to you?

A. The piece is set onto a grid; it’s structured like a lexicon of symbols. At the same time the marijuana represents a plant, or the rocks represent the idea of gardening or balance. I wanted it to be like a Zen garden of nuggets of information. A comment that I once got was, “Oh, this is trippy!” It has a certain type of attention or visual focus that is stony or heady in a way that someone under the influence might get caught up in the minute details. I wanted to play with the idea of stony painting, making a rock garden out of a loose set of iconographic symbols that play into my work.

Q. So would you say “Gardening” is a symbolic piece?

A. I feel like they’re abstract paintings. But abstractions are just one way to talk about the transition between languages and ideas or some vehicle to stimulate that. The symbols in “Gardening” are symbols, but they’re flat, one-dimensional symbols. It comes out that the pot leaf and the rocks and the puns are like slapstick humor, even though [the humor]’s coded and supposed to speak more to humility, physicality, presence of materials.

Q. So how did you even begin to think about creating this?

A. One thing I can say about the “Gardening” piece: I grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and that played a lot into in my artistic practice … A lot of the language of the painting is grown out of an idiosyncratic approach which is typical Northern California. [Northern California has] a Pacific coast approach to form that has this natural headiness to it, a lot of ritual and pseudo-spiritual imagery that naturally builds out of the work … I just like to bring my own personal background and familiarity to my academic art training.

Q. That’s quite a transition: you studied art at an art school in San Francisco, and now you’re at Yale. Has your work changed as a result?

A. I was 110% surprised by how my stuff changed. The work changed because the context changed and the location changed … In a reactionary way I work against it. I try to make space for myself rather than find space, and I didn’t want to contort my work to fit in here. I wanted to come in, find myself, develop, practice, and make room for the art I wanted to make and the conversation I wanted to have. But there’s a strain of regionalism in the thought process and I do think location is really important to the context of the work and can change the way the work functions. I went from this private art school to another private institution, and it’s got a different sort of shape and rhythm and rigor to it. The work, I felt, was more intellectually grounded and rigorous before I came here. When I arrived, I chose to throw all caution to the wind, kind of in a questionable way. So my work became more emotive and experimental.

Q. Experimental? Do you mean in a good way?

A. I’ve gained a lot of traction from being here. Before I came here everything was very rigid. I made geometric abstract paintings and I guess I was pretty fussy. The space [I worked with] was incredibly conflated and confusing but the technique and craft behind it was very particular and fussy and almost anal. That shut people out of the work. I always felt like I had to spend 3 or 4 months on a piece before it meant anything, and now I can spend like an hour and I can get so much further.

Q. So how have people been reacting to images like “Gardening” and “Stony”?

A. I was really happy before my thesis review: before the panel said anything a lot of [the members] just kind of cracked a smile. It seems like people are responding to the haptic quality of the paintings — how in a visual way, they are physically tactile. People seemed really drawn to the substrate-ground material relationship …The material aspect has a real painterly sort of logic to it that everyone seems to have access to because it’s not hidden. Yeah, it can be confusing when you first step up [to the painting], but then after a while you’re like, “Oh I want to see what it looks like on the back!” So the potential of the next piece is kind of present in the mind of the viewer in a way that is real positive and encouraging.

Q. How would you best sum up this collection of pieces and your aspirations for it?

A. The phrase to title it has been Light Farming/Heavy Gardening. It’s from a Utah Phillips quote, but it flattens out into a big stoner pun. I’m all about Big Dumb ideas. This was sort of slapstick, almost tongue-in-cheek and very culturally specific. I’m trying to develop a visual language while at the same time suppressing a lot of impulses that come along with that.

Q. What sort of impulses?

A. Like narrating, I work best with loose ends. The more loose ends the better, and I like the idea of nonlinear thinking and nonlinear intellectual thinking in painting.

Contact Joy Shan at

joy.shan@yale.edu .

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