In the nineties, John Paul Evans established a credible reputation for human-scale portraits of action-men dolls — often so subtly organised that at the first take one presumed them to be psychological portraits of real people, then wondered why this person had painted his eyebrow! The light source for these images was always daylight and they were invariably black and white.

Bed Sheet Dreams marks a departure from the frozen psyches harboured by the action-men. It is now the artist himself who is in action; holding a digital camera at arm’s length as he manoeuvres himself with a degree of discomfort so as to fit within the frame. Evans tells me: “The camera is effectively recording a movement of time rather than a moment of time.” No further manipulation of the image occurs (in digital terms). The artist achieves “what looks like a manipulated image through the accidents of the camera.” The intense backgrounds are simply the result of performing the contortions on a variety of bed sheets.

The light source remains daylight, but now colour emerges as a key factor in the experience. Where the action-men portraits were essentially sculptural, these bed sheet dreams are painterly, for the colour here has an astounding texture
Accident permeates the references the images suggest as well as their execution. The artist spread open on a dark green sheet reminds me of the enigmatic nude peeked at in Marcel Duchamp’s “Étants Donnés”, while an almost crucified blur on a yellow sheet evokes the “photographic” paintings of Gerhard Richter. And then, when I think of the artist contorting himself for the camera, I am reminded of the faces pulled by F. X. Messerschmidt in front a mirror, which led to “character heads” of grotesque and “pathological” intensity. Are they exorcisms or manifestations of some schizophrenic syndrome, these heads that have stimulated and evaded explication since first exhibited in 1793?

In John Paul Evans’s work, the contortion involves the body, not just the face, and the face is sometimes no more than a movement, a stain. This gargoyle-like activity is certainly just as enigmatic as Messerchmidt’s, indeed, more so — the Austrian artist’s titles give a fairly direct clue to each head: A constipation sufferer, the difficult secret, a strong smell — titles which seem too specific, too down-to-earth. As critical analysts, we wish to load these grimaces with more resonance. Evans’s Bed Sheet Dreams are otherwise untitled, but they do share one further irony with the Austrian’s portrait heads, for these prints are consumately realised, in terms of their colour values, just as Messerschmidt’s heads represent the acme of neo-classical skill. Such ironies appeal to dedicated practitioners. Content is subservient to expertise and technical enquiry, as when the master of trompe l’oeil, Gysbrechts, paints the picture of the back of a canvas.

The grotesque, that amalgam of horror and laughter, abject and sublime tensions, has been utilised as often as the innocuous (the humble still-life) to reveal the possibilities of skill. However, it is not a term that exhaustively covers these bizarre images by Evans. There is also a vulnerability to these dreams. Their general title suggests those involuntary “maps of Ireland” that are matinal evidence of adolescent stirrings, and some female viewers have remarked on the foetus-like aspect to certain of these works; a quality that renders them womb-like, the sheet as the caul (and the arm umbilically connected to the mothering eye of the camera).

Anthony Howell, March 2005