The Calm within the Storm: Introducing the Work of Evan Ishmael

Artists, Bicycle Fine Art, Feature Article

Evan Ishmael in his studio in Minneapolis, MN

Bicycle Fine Art is excited to introduce the work of Evan Ishmael to New York City. Evan’s mixed-media compositions are a unique addition to the work currently being offered by Bicycle, and we are excited to promote his unique style at the New York Design Center in the coming months. Having grown up in Minneapolis where he currently lives and works, Evan is currently in the process of moving to Brooklyn. Ready for this next chapter, Evan has remarked that he’s eager to meet the challenges that our city demands of it’s artists.

Evan is able to achieve his signature look through the use of soot—his trademark tool is a simple bic lighter, an unconventional one that his many years of experience have turned into a formidable mark-making implement that can rival any brush. By allowing the flame to stay on the surface for longer or shorter periods of time, he is able to control the value of his marks. The monumental shapes in Evan’s work are typically made up of hundreds of small dabs of soot, some tiny dots and others long streaks; combined they create a feeling of movement present within controlled boundaries. The forms themselves are fairly static, but within their confines, rages a chaotic battle created from flame.

Evan Ishmael
Untitled 4, 2009
Soot on canvas
Dimensions: 48 x 36 in.

Evan’s fascination with the nature of flame stems from his time spent working in his stepfather’s carpentry shop as a teenager. Working with the tools of this trade helped Evan become comfortable in the act of trusting his hands—a skill he honed while studying furniture design at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD). While at MCAD, Evan approached furniture design with an interest in modern sculpture that overwhelmed his interest in utility as such. Evan’s work from this period set him up to explore fine art after graduation, and he still tends to view his process of mark-making as a sculptural one. While he no longer creates furniture, his studio continues to feel like a wood shop. He also applies his practical talents in his day-to-day life, renovating his house by combining his eye for fine art with his carpentry skills.

The discovery of the bic lighter came after a long process of experimentation, in which many different methods of creating were thought up, tested, and rejected. The simple and ubiquitous bic lighter revealed itself to be Evan’s favorite tool, and one whose qualities have held his interest for many years. Evan found that butane or kitchen torches used a clean-burning fuel and didn’t produce enough soot, whereas something like a tiki torch proved too difficult to control. “I almost killed myself, and that’s why I don’t use tiki torches anymore,” Evan has said. Even after trying to adjust the wick size and fine-tune other factors, Evan was forced to recognize that large novelty flames were not the way to go.

Evan approaches his canvases as if they were sculptures. The influence of his furniture making days comes through in how he deals with his work. By the very nature of his preferred medium, he is forced to get physically involved in the making of his work. His studio in Minneapolis was once an industrial garage. In this space, he suspends his canvases from old machine parts with a self-made pulley system that allows him to adjust the angle of his canvas: a more horizontal angle will result in smaller circles, whereas a more vertical setup will yield straighter lines. Evan built this system out of necessity: “To my knowledge,” Evan says, “there is no such thing as an upside-down easel.” The idea of working at a simple easel with a small brush and palette holds little interest for Evan—he opts for a more physical, hands-on approach to making art.

Evan’s artwork can get quite large, both literally and in terms of the space it occupies in our mind. He combines loose mark-making with his love of scale and materials to lend his paintings an abstract expressionist feel: simultaneously masculine and cerebral, fit within a single simple frame. Evan’s compositions likewise boast a certain duality. Oftentimes there is no clear focal point, and the eye is left to wander over Evan’s marks at will, slowly wanderings across long gashes and tight dots. In other pieces, the viewer’s eye is almost forcibly pushed to a bright accent of color. These accents call attention the possible illusion of serious storm clouds and add some playfulness to a work in contrast to his more monochromatic surfaces.

Untitled 13

Evan Ishmael
Untitled 13, 2013
Soot on canvas
Dimensions: 48 x 36 in.

Evan’s inspiration for a composition will come spontaneously, and he resists the urge to plan out his artwork beforehand. While working on a shape or form, Evan will turn the piece on its side to study it. Looking at it from a new perspective often highlights something he didn’t see before. From there, he will take pre-existing forms and double them, and place them back to back in order to arrive at an entirely different, more intriguing composition. Many of his pieces include the mirroring of similar forms to create a semi-symmetrical system of organization. This way of thinking about and developing different shapes reflects the orderliness of Evan’s mind and his interest in tight geometric concepts; evident both in his process and his finished work. It comes as no surprise that Evan greatly admires Sol LeWitt, whose similarly ordered pieces highlight the structure of the environment in which they’re placed.

The addition of accents of color to Evan’s canvases is a more recent development to his artistic process, and came about at roughly the same time he started favoring hardboard panel to canvas. Evan found that gessoed wood captured the flame’s residue with more clarity than the woven texture of canvas. Once he deems the initial layer of soot finished, the spray paint is applied directly to the surface in strictly geometric forms. By its nature, soot has rather undefined edges and a soft dark grey value. Spray paint, on the other hand, has the potential for extremely strict borders and almost overwhelming hues. Graffiti artists use the medium to grab the attention of passersby—its inherent qualities make it an attractive medium for contemporary fine artists like Evan. His use of spray paint manages to accentuate the qualities of the soot without overpowering them. The two work together in a carefully thought-out dance. In some pieces, Evan spray paints great swathes of canvas, whereas in others there is barely a hint of orange, or a thin streak of gold that speaks only when spoken to.

Evan Ishmael
Hard Water Will Not Harm You, 2017
Soot and spray paint on hardboard panel
Each panel: 38.5 x 28.25 in. each
Display Dimensions: 38.5 x 58.25 in.

Evan used to number his pieces according to the series that they were a part of. Eventually, this system resulted in Untitled 1, Untitled 2, etc. as well as Chrome 1, Chrome 2, etc. which Evan found frustrating. It became apparent that he needed to find other inspiration for his titles. Hard Water will not Harm You comes from a book entitled Dr. Evan’s How to Keep Well, a pseudo-science textbook that Evan says is probably about a century old. While he has remarked, “I don’t know why I keep it around,” the book has solved Evan’s problem of names—now he has decided to pull quotes and sentences from its wrinkled pages and use those as his titles. Problem solved.

Evan Ishmael in collaboration with Ellie Ishmael
Dimensions: 30 x 20 in.

Evan Ishmael’s most recent work is the result of a collaboration with his wife, artist Ellie Ishmael, who creates simple and elegant compositions with washes of ink. Her colorful and transparent layers of acrylic paint or ink sets the stage where Evan’s trademark soot patterns take on a new context, a new meaning, in a process that merges their unique artistic languages into one expressive voice.

Evan Ishmael
Orange 1, 2013
Soot and spray-paint on glass
Dimensions: 29 x 39 in.

Evan’s unconventional materials and his constantly developing style make his a unique voice to add to the roster of artists represented by Bicycle. No stranger to completing oversized commissions for hotels and public spaces, Evan tackles his projects head-on. With his abstract expressionist approach to minimalism, Evan’s compositions offer both calm and chaos, combining his love of scale with his work’s ability to integrate itself within any setting into which it is placed.

Posted by

Lisa-Thi Beskar, Art Advisor & Curator