British painter Tony Bevan emerged in the early eighties and has continued to attract interest without quite fitting in with broader trends. His recent museum show in Valencia (Dec 05-Jan 06) consolidates this steady recognition. Like contemporaries such as Marlene Dumas or Kim Dingle, Bevan’s style toys with a number of key strands to current figuration but eludes easy or quick analysis, is rewarding or not for the effort.
The most obvious feature to his work is the drawing or line, stressed by the use of charcoal and the priority given to a thick, black and even line usually in just parts of a picture, mostly of a frontal figure stripped of setting. Yet the heavy line is neither the bold primitivism nor adroit ambiguities of Modernism, of Leger, Picasso or Late Klee for example, nor the print standards for commercial illustration exploited by Lichtenstein, Adami or Caulfied. Furthermore Bevan is neither the impulsive Neo-Expressionist nor the sophisticated exponent of pastiche and parody, but rather the creature caught in between, content to remain there, measuring one against another, the necessities of style against the resources of realism.
The work thus occupies an intriguing nexus of styles, tell us a little about a lot, is tantalising and frustrating in equal measure, and remains essentially rooted in the 80s, with the exhaustion of Photorealism, the impatience with the motifs of New Image Painting, the re-focussed interest in expression and metaphor. The uncomfortable collision between the thick black lines and finer detail jolt his pictures between stylisation and realism, the fragment and the whole, often prompting commentary on the balance between stereotype and individual. The effect is strangely aggressive, even cruel, literally and metaphorically heavy-handed. Details of facial expression are isolated beneath a set of measured curves that stand for hair over a bare skull, above cursory stripes that denote clothing and torso, punctuating the face with heavy lines simplifying and approximating planes or contours. Yet equally, the effect is halting or reluctant, piecemeal or potted. The individual would seem imprisoned or punished by style, style apportioned and dispersed, feared or despised. The ambivalence inevitably prompts comparisons with Bacon.
Yet Bevan is never willing to sacrifice standard proportion or perspective to bolder metaphor, or risk more inventive or invasive line, or indeed much more than line. Line remains locked on set standards as surely as a Caulfied or Early Warhol, as far from a Penck or Pettibon as a Picasso or Early Pollock. The work engages over a comfortable range, the lines can only do so much and are only given so much to do it to, for composition is confined to the frontal portrait, usually head (more recently, tilted) bust or three quarter figure, largely indifferent to props, costume or setting. He occasionally offers architectural perspectives that excel in heavy line but avoid modelling or light, and more generally the greater resources of iconography available in either commercial illustration or photography are conspicuously ignored. Again, this marks Bevan much more as an artist of the 80s than of an era before or since.
Finally, while line animates Bevan’s contest between expression and realism, the colour of the line (apart from monochromes), gradations of tone and length, focus or sharpness and differences between lines is much less explored or exposed. The project remains limited, even in its rigour. But perhaps this remains the task of following artists. Bevan remains a singular voice, situated at a crucial intersection for figurative styles, points to paths not taken, overtaken, unavailable and unavoidable.