Art: Paul Evans: Turning cold metal into furniture art
Metal furniture is an acquired taste. Unlike wood, metal can seem cold, austere and industrial, the antithesis of domestic coziness.
Yet a major retrospective for Paul Evans at the James A. Michener Art Museum, the first ever for this artist, demonstrates that "austere" rarely applies to his richly ornamented creations.
Evans (1931-1987) was an imaginative dynamo who designed and fabricated dynamic furniture during the studio craft renaissance in the middle of the last century.
A Bucks County native, he ran workshops at various times in New Hope, Lambertville and Plumsteadville, north of Doylestown. As an exceptionally expressive metalsmith, he imparted both painterly and sculptural qualities to furniture.
At more than 60 pieces, from the elegant silver holloware of his youth to ornate forged-front cabinets of the 1970s, the Michener show, curated by the museum's Constance Kimmerle, traces a remarkable career that began as a solo studio practice and ended as a factory-scale production line that involved 88 workers in two shifts.
It seems odd that an artist who labored so intensely to transform metal furniture into art hasn't been given a museum retrospective before this one.
Evans was an innovator who developed a variety of methods to give steel and aluminum expressive color, texture and the suggestion of movement.
Over several decades he produced furniture in contrasting styles. His forged-front steel cabinets incorporate lively abstract compositions and a refined muscularity in their fabrication, as if they had been made by a blacksmith with a sophisticated eye and sensitive hands.
His so-called "Skyline Cabinet," made about 1966, is probably the most extreme manifestation of the way Evans could transform a functional object into sculpture - in this case, a jagged procession of architectural profiles.
Other pieces exemplify the "moderne" design aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s. At one end of this spectrum is a sleek, art deco-style sideboard composed of four polished steel cylinders; it's pure form, without a smidgen of decoration.
Evans expressed "moderne" differently in a long cabinet whose front consists of shardlike, chrome-plated steel plates, like a shattered sheet of glass flash-frozen by a strobe light.
Trained in metalsmithing at Rochester Institute of Technology and Cranbrook Academy of Art, Evans worked as a resident artisan at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts for several years before moving to New Hope in 1955, where he opened a joint showroom with woodworker Phillip Lloyd Powell.
The exhibition includes several pieces on which they collaborated, including a cabinet dated about 1962 in which one-half of the front is a compartmentalized high relief by Evans. He explained such effusions of ornament thus: "Most rooms are now simple plaster boxes with no architectural detail, so that least some of the furniture should have detail and richness."
Evans' forged furniture is more muscular than graceful, vaguely medieval in its ruggedness despite liberal applications of gold leaf. The chests in particular are really just plain boxes, some of them very large, with aggressive three-dimensional facades.
He sometimes softens the personality of these pieces with curving lines, as in a 1966 forged-front cabinet that's almost lyrical and in a 1968 piece in which the front is formed of looped copper bands with verdigris patina.
The shimmering flow of this piece contrasts markedly with the more stolid steel projections of the earlier work.
The shift to a more fluid aesthetic seems to connect to his association in 1964 with the firm Directional Furniture, which lasted until 1979. During this period he developed a process of working aluminum with an acetylene torch, which produced bold welding seams and pooled surface patterns.
The show includes an especially flamboyant example of this so-called Argente process, a tall cabinet from 1970 whose surfaces appear to dissolve into patches of light and dark.
Evans moved his operation from Lambertville to a larger building in Plumsteadville in 1970. Here his expanded workforce produced designs for Directional Furniture while Evans continued to make his distinctive forged studio pieces.
But eventually it all came crashing down, a consequence of his being financially overextended. By 1987, Evans was heavily in debt because of borrowing at high rates to maintain his operation. One day after retiring at age 55, he died of a heart attack, his third.
The exhibition seeks to put Evans' career in perspective by concluding with an anomalous section devoted to crafted art in other media such as wood, fiber and ceramics made in this region during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This is accomplished with a selection of work largely drawn from the collection of Helen W. Drutt English, the former Philadelphia gallerist. While a contextual counterpoint might seem theoretically useful, this group of mostly small-scale objects is overpowered by the mass and dazzle of Evans' furniture, to the point where it feels extraneous.
PAUL EVANS AT THE MICHENER MUSEUM
"Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism"
At the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through June 1.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays and noon to 5 Sundays.
Admission: $18, $17 for seniors, $16 for college students with valid I.D., $8 for visitors 6 through 18.
Information: 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.
"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.