Level Artist Jim Evans- Art of the Pop Portrait
Jim Evans and Emma Saperstein sat down to discuss The Art of a Pop Portrait, making art during three different decades and iconography…
E: Tell me about the work Level is showing in Dallas --
J: That was actually discovered by Eddie Donaldson when he was visiting my studio. He saw some stuff upstairs and he asked me about it. I said, “Oh, it was some stuff I did awhile back. I haven’t really messed with it since then.” He said, “Wow. This stuff could be good.” So he showed it to some people in Palm Springs at the Modernism show which is happening this week in Palm Springs. And then when Brandy came by to visit my house here in Malibu - and she went to the studio and she saw the stuff I had set up for that show in Palm Springs and wondered what it was all about. So I told her the story about it with Richard Duardo and we had the studio downtown and we just sort of stumbled together into this idea of doing the pop culture portraits and it caught on quickly and we had this sort of quick little career together and basically just kind of went away. I went on to something else and he went on to something else. The stuff hadn’t really been touched much during that period of time for all those years and then Brandy and Eddie kind of rediscovered it. So Brandy talked to me about it for about a year then here we are - with the show.
E: It’s amazing how quickly and how rapidly it’s come together.
J: Well, one thing about it is it’s not that - the work already exists so it’s not like I have to sit and paint it all and … it’s not like I have to sit and put the show together. Every show, I handled this particular show group of pieces was really like part of a finite piece of work that was done awhile and once it’s all gone, it’s all gone. This work is really about a historical context - it’s apart of a period of time. And then it won’t be anymore - at least with that particular grouping.
E: I’m just looking at your card right here, the statement on the back by Peter Frank about Warhol and the way he uses iconography and the way you use iconography. Can you talk a little bit about what the work means to you in that historical context from an art historical perspective?
J: It was a bit of an experiment, I kind of stumbled into it like Richard. Richard had done a few personality type pieces. He only tended to do, I wouldn’t call them portraits, than individual images surrounded by scrolls of color and iconography and things about himself. Taking a Mexican wrestler or something like that and putting it in unique context and that was kind of what he was doing. I came from a completely different background. Illustration and I was sort of getting into fine art and we were represented by the same gallery. We ended up having lunch together and he was kind of stuck on where he wanted to go with this idea. told him I had some really cool ideas and really admired the iconography of Hollywood and what Andy Warhol had done to a certain point and that we could maybe do something together using his silk screen technique and my graphic techniques to achieve a more powerful end than what we would get individually. He though that was a great idea. I had done a lot of album covers and movie posters and things like that - so commercial type work had already started coming to me. So I started scooted toward these things Richard and I were doing together. For instance, I did something Yoni and then he wanted an album cover done in this portrait style. It was kind of a big ticket item. To say for instance, an artists has a piece that he’s trying to sell in a gallery vs a guy that has an album cover a guy is going to pay $10-15,000 for a single piece. It kind of kicks the studio into gear and I did the Grammy’s one year. I did comic relief. Those were gigantic things. Like when I did Frank Sinatra’s birthday party. I did the piece for Frank Sinatra and then a lot of money was raised through the sales of the pieces plus the gallery was able to sell the pieces so it became a part of a large scale program. I also did a piece in Playboy
Magazine. So they hired me to do an illustration say, Sean Connery and I was able to do Sean Connery as a limited edition. So they would give me the rights to that and the pieces would become limited edition and that would be curated or sold to different people - fans of Sean Connery, fans of these pieces. So, it opened up a pretty big fan base. I think that that opened up a TV show in the 90s that put the pieces up in the background. So it started getting used in TV shows and things like that. We had some really big shows. We had one in Chicago, we had one in New York.
E: I lived in Chicago, but before I lived in Chicago, I traveled because my father is a humanitarian and aide worker so I was all over Central Asia and Southeast Asia, Europe. I was traveling my whole life - but always in pretty much the developing world where American celebrities have a different role. In my own life there’s so many pop culture references from America that I just don’t know. Was te selection of celebrities something you did yourself or was it all from this - does the work at all spur from your own fascination with these characters and do you research them or is it all, has it all been commission based up to this point?
J: It initially started with our own fascination with the characters, but then it went quickly into these are commission based or people wanting something or when we would have shows I would hook up with different celebrities and they would want to have their portrait done. They would show up at the show and write about it, things like that. It became - It started out as an art experiment, with purity and then it became far more sophisticated fairly quickly. At first it was just an experiment with Richard and I. We would have a lot of fun and jam back and forth almost like Jazz musicians because working together completely free of form. Like I said, we would have homeless people come in and use colors and things like that and pay them as artists. Say, “hey, you’re an artist now.” So we were trying to do something really different, but because of the nature of where we were and the entertainment industry and
both of our backgrounds, and our connections, it became something far bigger really fast.
E: Interesting. Really interesting. So, all of this work was made between 1984 and 1989.
J: Right. I switched over to - I had a lot of other stuff to do. I had a design job and things like that. And other stuff I had to do with things like that. I switched over to doing rock posters. Just like sheer chance. I was at a party with some members of Nirvana and they had seen all the stuff I did.
E: What do you feel like is interesting about the work being sort of reactivated, re-exhibited now 30 years after it was made?
J: I feel it’s interesting. I guess artistically I lasted quite awhile I became more comfortable with my past. For a while it was really difficult for me to embrace anything about my past because I came from an underground comic books and then I did a lot of surf art for surfer magazines and skateboard art. I mean, in between I was doing a lot of big advertising for the Dodgers, Bank of America existed on multiple levels but I used my skills for things I did like. Like, surfing, skateboarding, skiing at one time or snowboarding and at the same time making a lot of money by doing advertising art. For a period of time that was what I did. Then when I got into the 80s and fine art I wanted to reject my past. Now this stuff fell into the same category for me for a little while and it was like let to go and sort of forgot it. Then I just remove myself from the equation and put myself in your place and I see it fresh again. Sort of like children, when you go to a little kids movie or something like that and you watch it again as an adult and you see it again through your kid’s eyes again what kids do for adults.
E: Yeah! You’re the second artist that I’ve talked to today that has talked about their work as their child - watching it change and revisiting and experiencing it in different ways. I think that’s really beautiful. I think that’s what it should do – if it’s good work should have a long life, right? It should have a life of seasons. The work having a season of life back in the 80s and now having this life here in Dallas in 2016, that’s really amazing.
J: Yeah, like like an interfere of art, a book lasts forever. I mean, you could read a book over the last century and it seems fine. If the ideas are there, then it’s pretty much eternal. Any great idea is kind of eternal, right?
E: And it should be.
J: Trying to communicate with people, nothing like even with the illustrations I did. I studied a lot of philosophy, a lot of eastern religion and things before I kicked off my career in earnest, before my skill set really set in so that I could actually bring what I wanted to with and when I did, I used a lot of what I had learned in terms of color, form and shapes, classical symbols and things like that.