The Evolving Process of Evan Ishmael, Finding Precision from a Flame

Artists, Bicycle Fine Art, Blog

When you first see Evan Ishmael’s work, you can’t help but look for answers. His small, shadowed grey, shifting marks, run scattered across the surface of his pieces, hard bound by perfectly precise lines. Geometric, trim, sleek, and meticulous, they’re mesmerizing in their controlled exactitude. Viewers have theorized they are thumbprints, paint strokes, and wood cuts. With works both new and revisited now on view at the New York Design Center, one can examine the Minneapolis artist’s singular process up close. When we first introduced Evan to our roster of artists, he was gearing up for a big move to New York City and we were excitedly anticipating what he would be working on in his new surroundings. The artist has now fully transitioned to the city, and welcomed the Bicycle Fine Art team into his Brooklyn studio space to discuss what he has been working on now that he has settled in.

Evan Ishmael - Bicycle Fine Art - NYDC

Evan Ishmael
Yellow 2, 2016
Soot and acrylic on hardboard panel, framed in red oak
Dimensions: 48 x 48 in.
*Currently on display at the New York Design Center at 200 Lexington Ave., 10th Floor

The recently installed work, Yellow 2, incorporates Evan’s signature style of dynamic, almost chaotic, soot markings produced by flame on gessoed wood. These he contrasts in compositions bordered by constricted edges of color or geometric shapes. He uses a standard bic lighter to get this effect, suspending his surface at an angle over him to get the perfect position: For shorter marks, he’s almost entirely underneath the piece; for the longer ones he’s at a shallower angle. Even the lighter has to be a specific temperature, which Evan gauges with a practiced touch, so that it throws a longer flame. A cold lighter, he says, is useless.

With the New York premiere of Yellow 2, signifies a revisiting of circles after an almost two year hiatus, as he ventured into multiple panel work. Completed in 2016, Yellow 2 was revived after Evan decided that it needed a frame, which instantly transformed the work. The title comes from a switch in Evan’s naming of his works, which were largely left untitled beforehand. Evan began to title his works based on their color. You might notice, however, when looking at Yellow 2, that the work displays much more hues of green. This is, according to Evan, “due to the soot making it look a lot more green –the color is actually called “poison yellow.” Combining the elements while creating the soot markings, resulted in an intriguing transformation to his palette. The circular forms, Evan notes, offer more of a challenge that he craves. They take expert technical preparation, from masking off the edges, to working with the delicate exacto knife affixed to a radial compass, and require even more planning than his two panel works.

Hearing about Evan’s process is like observing a window into his psyche. The need for repeated patterns and precarious technique, mastered by his nimble skill, reveals an anxious nature. His interest in these highly involved, structural forms were made facile by a long relationship with furniture making, and his years spent painting pieces. From that occupation, Evan found an all consuming style, which required constant attention to combat his anxiety. His two panel pieces, in particular, in their detailed mirrored images illustrate not only an acute amount of skilled work in addition, but a truly extensive mental exercise. Evan himself says, “It’s a really delicate process until the varnish goes on top.” Perhaps most telling about his emotional connection to his process, is when he tells us, “I can’t control the soot itself, but I can control the confines within which it exists.”

Evan began these meticulous, structured works on scraps of torn canvas lying around in his studio. At that time, he followed a more traditional process of creating the work directly on large scale canvases. He soon discovered, however, that canvas yielded inconsistent results, which lead to forays into glass and wood. The glass pieces he worked on were reverse painted, in an 18th century style creating luminous depth. He also sprung experimentations with wood boards —now his favored current medium. But, having covered most of the formerly blank surface with his saturated flame markings, to a near point of completion, Evan would still note that the compositions were lacking something. He began to investigate other modes of building his process, ensuring that his final creation was perfect.

Evan Ishmael in his new studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

While the works seem unbridled in their free form marks, they are actually the product of multiple premeditated compositions. “When I first started, I would come up with a composition and I wouldn’t be thrilled with it.” Evan shared. To hone the style, he started to create composition-studies for each piece by experimenting with a series of value studies. He frequently makes four or five smaller versions (approximately 18” x 24”) of varying works, until he constructs a configuration that feels successful to him. He creates the studies to test out his ideas, observing them in different orientations, sometimes fully rotating them, sometimes looking at them horizontally or vertically on the wall. He then culls the ones he likes to see what should go into the final product. These sketches, beautiful even on their own, line Evan’s studio work table as the full-scale piece unfolds. When a germinating composition graduates to the larger boards, ranging in size somewhere around 72” x 48”, the resultant work is a composite of many of the most successful portions. The larger pieces have a powerful shape and varying surface. Evan observes, “That’s why I like doing [the works] larger, because you get such a movement, downwards or upwards.” Not all of the works come out perfectly, and with his attuned eye for detail, he can pinpoint every “irregularity” in the mass of soot markings and show you where there is a minute imperfection. The scale, however, allows for the work to really breathe and take on an impressive sense of depth and energy.

Scale is certainly a relevant issue in Evan’s current new abode. In the typical fashion of most New York transplants, his new studio space is a reduction from his Minneapolis industrial-sized workshop. In Minneapolis he could work on 14 projects at once, sharing the studio with his wife, Ellie. His process, however, requires a still environment which his new basement studio readily provides. Any draft, breeze or change in the wind can cause the lighter flame to jump, and instantly ruin one of his works. Even better, he finds that in his closer quarters today he has more ability to focus, and has been investigating the process more extensively in the creation of his work.

Evan Ishmael-Bicycle-Fine-Art-Profiles

Evan Ishmael
To Think Hot is to Feel Hot, 2018
Soot and spray-paint on hardboard panel
Dimensions: 48 x 73 in.
*Currently on display at Profiles in the New York Design Center at 200LEX, 12th floor

A shifting shape of his work does seem to be on the horizon. Now premiering at Profiles in the New York Design Center, Bicycle Fine Art is pleased to showcase Evan’s newest painting, To Think Hot is to Feel Hot. In this piece, Evan explores the potential of darker shades of soot, a realm he intends to extend further into future works. Characteristic of Evan’s two panel work, each side of the diptych offers a reciprocal dialogue with a created length of movement out toward their bound edges, where a single line of color stops the eyes. This visual activity is collected toward the center of the piece, and the edges remain white allowing space and openness. The soot consequently has exceptional depth and density, and requires close inspection to see the delicacy of the marks. Speaking of these darker explorations in his work, Evan says, ‘I’ve been trying to incorporate [using a] darker color on the ends” Contrasting his earlier work where he would lay down opaque lines of color in the center of the composition, “I wanted to try to see if I could make it less noticeable right out the gate, [so that] when you get up close you can see just a tiny bit of color.” This new approach adds to the complexity of Evan’s work, drawing you deeper into the piece itself.

Evan’s titles also lead the viewer to discover the light-hearted nature of the artist’s humor. As with many of his other titles, “To Think Hot is to Feel Hot” is a phrase selected from his copy of the obscure, humorous pseudo-science textbook Dr. Evans How to Keep Well. In the chapter “Hot Weather Advice”, Dr. Evans discusses solutions for coping with the oppressive Chicago summer heat. The cure? Mind over matter. Relating to the text Dr. Evans declares, “To think hot is to feel hot.” Essentially, Evan interprets, “Relieve the stress and cool yourself down.” “I really liked that. Especially with it fitting to my struggle with anxiety and stress and how that plays out in my work.” He says that titling works from the book brings some levity to the pieces, introducing a bit of mischievous play. Personal and yet playful, these tongue in cheek phrases (sometimes directives, sometimes mantra-like) bring a whimsical perspective to his work.

Evan Ishmael
Many Young People 1, 2017
Soot and spray-paint on hardboard panel
Dimensions: 30 x 40 in.

In past works like Many Young People 1 and Many Young People 2, you can clearly see the colorful bands. Side by side, the mirror images speak to each other without being perfectly identical. While not, strictly speaking, a diptych, these “brother” artworks follow a similar line of activity resulting in luscious, muted, color. Their bold and sumptuous color selections do lend a vibrancy, even a vitality, in that they bring about a jolt of change in what could be an otherwise strangely soothing piece in shades of grey.

Evan Ishmael
Many Young People 2, 2017
Soot and spray-paint on hardboard panel
Dimensions: 30 x 40 in.

Given his predilection for minimalist aesthetics and precise, clean lines, it is no surprise that influences like Sol LeWitt figure largely in his own practice. However, Evan also cites his greatest contemporary influence as Rafael Rozendaal, a primarily web based artist who creates mesmerizing, geometric and interactive websites. Evan loves the concept of the generative work, and uses their style as inspiration for creating his own reciprocal shapes and patterns. He approaches Rozendaal’s work as he does when he goes to see a gallery exhibition, seeking out the process behind it and how he can recreate, perfect, and extrapolate from the form. Web work, in particular, holds that tantalizing exactitude for Evan.

This attention to detail is what draws you into the pieces. The intricacy of the process elevates the medium from a rudimentary element to a elegant creation, seamlessly mixing with the most refined interior settings. Of course, this is to say, without eradicating the organic quality of soot. The natural attributes are still present, illustrated by the commissioning of works by two micro-chemists who found reciprocal shapes and patterns in their own research. The works would certainly fit well as a statement piece in a cool toned room, bringing vibrancy and meditative touches any space that it is hung.

Evan Ishmael in collaboration with Ellie Ishmael
Orange 1, 2015
Water-soluble ink and soot on paper
Dimensions: 18 x 24 in.

Paralleling his mostly monochromatic pieces, Evan has also worked on colorful collaborations with Ellie Ishmael. Their piece, entitled Orange 1, is one of a series that was influenced by a camping trip to the Rocky Mountains. The work is fluid and open, and has brighter pops of translucent color than what we’re used to seeing in Evan’s solo work. Known for her graphic paintings in oils, Ellie had begun experimenting with soluble inks during the time of this joint undertaking. Her color selections introduced a wider palette to Evan’s typical wheelhouse of deeply saturated hues. Inspired by the landscape of the Rockies, Ellie’s newfound translucent washes, used to cover the surface more fluidly, introduced an ethereal effect. Working now on top of this freeform background, the addition of Evan’s soot designs produced a more organic finished product completely distinct from either of their signature styles. About this painting, Evan remarks “A lot of my pieces end up [including] harder lines and more defined margins…..I tried to let go of as much of the margin control and margin lines as I could.” Chuckling, he continues, “It was definitely more difficult for me.” With the tighter quarters of the new studio and their closer working proximity, the pair’s synergetic influences on each other’s work should result in exciting evolutions as Evan continues to refine his autonomous process.

Looking to the future, Evan is excited to continue to expand his own process, pushing himself to greater challenges. Inspired by seeing his works on view at the New York Design Center, Evan is newly intrigued by the idea of experimenting further with the circular form. He wants to manipulate the overall perspective of the end composition, likening it to a camera lens zooming in on its subject, where Evan depicts only three quarters of the shape. Evan has found a growing desire to make his subjects appear larger than they appear on the canvas through just the implication of their shape. This falls in line with the artist’s never-ending search to extend his process further, push the boundaries of his technique and try new angles at which to approach it. Whether he is investigating the “how?” behind works on view at a gallery, exploring new elements through collaborations, or just re-examining fresh possibilities in his own pieces, his process remains an evolving form.



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Lisa-Thi Beskar, Art Advisor & Curator