“[S]ide by side and inside this spiritual love I have for you there is also a wild beast-like craving for every inch of your body, for every secret and shameful part of it, for every odour and act of it.”
So wrote James Joyce to his wife Nora Barnacle in December 1909. In a series of letters to Barnacle (who was at the time caring for their children in Trieste), Joyce addresses her alternately as his “dark blue, rain-drenched flower” and his “fuckbird,” recalling the duo’s sexual and scatological highlights, naming his future desires, and sparing no detail in the odors, acts, and fluids he most enjoys. Their correspondence (his side, at least; hers was lost) is funny and filthy, sexy and sweet, depraved and devoted. Joyce doesn’t deny or attempt to tone down his perversions; he wields them instead as acts of adoration.
In his latest exhibition, KINK, Ben Evans is doing much the same. His fly-on-the-wall images–with their scantily clad protagonists indulging (or overindulging) in one vice or another–acknowledge the coexistence of the corporeal form as a vehicle for both the conventionally sexiest of things, and what is considered most shameful. He asks us not to view the work through a single lens, but through the prism of attitudes towards physical intimacy, food and weed that we’ve accumulated over the course of our lives. “Anything that holds a lot of baggage in someone’s read before they’ve even processed what’s going on is exciting for me,” Evans tells Playboy of the common triggers planted in his paintings. “S&M masks, ball gags, fast food, gossip magazines, etc. all get these instantaneous, subconscious reactions where a lot of our prior knowledge and history of interactions with these items comes into play.”
The artist has built a hall of mirrors that reflect our feelings around moralized behaviors—our most puritanical, humiliating, tender, and delicious associations with eating, smoking and sex, and the various combinations thereof. And perhaps to disarm viewers facing such fraught subject matter, he’s rendered his subjects’ world in a hallucinogenic swirl of bodega offerings and bright, cactus-like limbs. “I think there’s an inherent tongue-in-cheek quality to the work,” says Evans, a description meant as an idiom but just as relevant literally, given the pre- and post-coital states in which his characters seem permanently suspended (also, sometimes, literally). “It represents a duality within me, which I think is visually really apparent. The paintings might initially seem surface-level and whimsical, but these are loaded images, and I think the ‘candy lens’ allows for them to have a slower read.”
Evans’ artistic choices defamiliarize the familiar and vice versa, like a dream you know is set in your childhood home, even though it looks completely different from the real thing–or, in its darker moments, like a trip on the cusp of warped and terrifying. Evans guides his audience through a Wonka-esque garden of delights and horrors, an Everlasting Gobstopper of emotional bait with projectile discharges of condiments and vomit and people shaped like giant, latex-masked lollipops. He recognizes his visual language can be overpowering at first glance, but says he aims to normalize unconventional forms of intimacy.
“People miss out on the tenderness in my work a lot of the time,” he says. “I think the loudness of the motifs and the brashness of the actions being depicted sometimes silences this quality, but there is something really subtly gentle and soft that’s at the heart of every drawing.” Which is clear enough to see if you consider how passive Evans is as a narrator. He never seems to be judging his subjects, nor sanitizing them–and why should he? They’re not performing for his pleasure, but living for their own. Sometimes that means stringing themselves up with a charger cord, sometimes eating cereal straight from the box…and a lot of times, hitting a bong. Which, again, he’s not necessarily telling you how to feel about.
“I like to think of the bong in the pieces as the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey,” says Evans. “It has become a staple in the works and a monumental symbol for me. I think people pretty much know that I’m very pro-weed and that the more visibility it has, the less off-putting it will become.“ He then notes the obvious political connotations now associated with any mention of cannabis culture. “It’s polarizing,” he says. “Whether you love it or hate it, you have a reaction to it.”
It’s an ethos–a polarizing quality–Evans has embraced in all aspects of his art. In fact, the strong negative reaction to his undergraduate evolution convinced him that he was on the right path. “In college, my medium and style shifted from exclusively oil paint and distorted realism to acrylic and cartoon,” he says. “The academic setting at Pratt was really suffocating my art. The toxic heteromasculinity and the way critiques were being run left little room for any kind of exploration outside of professors’ preferred ‘aesthetics.’
“The current body of work I am creating was almost unanimously disliked at Pratt,” says Evans. And then, impishly: “This made me want to pursue it even more.” This punkish taste for provocation and equal capacity for tenderness are evident on Evans’ canvases. His sex-positive, #MeToo era paintings contain the thrill of voyeurism without the moral compromise; the graphic pleasure-seeking of Tom Wesselmann without the inhuman polish; the stubbled, non-normative fantasies of R. Crumb without the violent lecherousness. KINK is a warm, sticky substance between you and your partner; a little gross, viscerally speaking, but ultimately a product of love.
KINK is currently on view at Guy Hepner until mid-March.