Scratching The Surface
April 13, 2014
As I recline on a sofa in the corner of Mark Evans’ workshop, waiting for him to arrive, I can’t help thinking how satisfying this place is. Hidden away in a quiet farm building only a mile or so from London’s ring road, it’s not sanitized or refined in any way. It’s just a rudimentary arrangement of stonewalls and wooden floor, littered with stretched leather canvasses and clean steel knives. Around me are powerfully ironic images of heaving, muscular bulls carved into glossy cowhide. There’s a human skull composed entirely from the patterns of a Dollar Bill and an inverted shark’s jaw forming the shape of a heart.
Mark bursts through the rattling tin doors and bounds up the stairs to meet me, approaching with an outstretched hand, a quick apology for being four minutes late and an evident keenness to get straight down to business. He’s an immediately likeable man. His demeanor is robust and assured, but prickling with a barely contained energy that sees him talk with tremendous physical animation. He seems unwilling to express himself in a way that is flabby or insincere.
Instead, despite the informal nature of our discussion, everything is laced with a fierce quick-wittedness and a tendency toward spontaneous self-examination. Half-articulated ideas emerge before he reins them back in and reiterates his point in another, more penetrative way. It’s a compelling thing to witness and (rather like his art) it feels attractively confrontational. But he’s a man in demand, so time is short. We have just one hour to get to the crux of what he does, so I dive straight in with the first and most obvious question…
So Mark, why leather?
The question that pre-dates that is ‘Why knives?’ When I was seven years old, my Grandfather gave me a pocketknife and, as a young farm boy in the mountains of North Wales, I was always playing; carving tree bark and rocks and marking my territory. There was something about carving through the bark of a tree. Tree bark is obviously dark – deep greens, browns – and as you slice through the sap, through the layers, you reach the highlights. There’s this white pulp. It’s beautiful. So I sat there as a kid always marking through something dark into something light.
So were you in search of a medium that enabled you to use those techniques?
Not at the time. I went down the traditional route of painting, charcoals, photography, oils and acrylics. I moved from Wales to London to study fine art and I had these grand ideas of being mentored by a painting legend from the Royal Academy, someone who would take me under their wing and teach me. But it was completely the opposite. I arrived into the Zeitgeist that was Blur, Oasis, Jarvis Cocker, Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin. Everything was conceptual. Painting was dead. Everything figurative was dead. And I just hit this brick wall, and nothing that was in me was allowed out.
How did you get past that?
The world was very digital at the time. The Matrix had come out in ‘99 and it was the time of the Millennium Bug. A lot of artists were doing digital work but I had this kind of raw, primeval farm boy background. And then my girlfriend gave me a leather jacket for Christmas and that kind of led to my ‘Eureka’ moment. Someone pulled a cracker and the cat suddenly freaked out in my Grandma’s arms. She was bleeding so I ran to her aid and the blood got all over my new jacket. It absorbed straight into the leather so I tried to scratch through the red blood to get it off and this lighter patch happened. That was my thunderbolt. I scratched a whole face in the back and carried on wearing it. People on the street who’d comment how they loved the jacket just kept stopping me. In fact, one of the guys was a buyer from Harrods Menswear, so I knew I was onto something very different. I just didn’t know what.
So how did you develop it?
I just went into exile. I found a garage in North London and I locked myself in there for years, literally, from 2001 to 2004. I was trying to understand how many tones I could get; how I could move the leather. I was inventing something that had never been done before, so I needed to perfect the process.
What does that process now involve?
Before I begin carving, the leather is waxed, oiled, hand-tanned, dried, buffed then polished. My fingers are like callous crusts from all the wrenching and pulling.
What I then do is best described as ‘micro-sculpture’. When you paint, you add. A sculptor starts with something and then removes. But there’s no room for error, so I put together a draft on my computer with very high-res photos so I can see how I want it to look before I get my knife out. When you step up to the leather itself, you can grid it, work closely with photos or project outlines on it. But that doesn’t help with the third dimension, because it’s how deep you go that creates the tonal variant. That first incision is always slightly terrifying.
Given the fact that your work is so physical, do you consider yourself first and foremost a craftsman or an artist?
A craftsman can fix a sculpture. He can replicate what the artist has already created. But an artist has to see something that doesn’t exist in the real world and bring that into being. I have been contacted by people from interior magazines who constantly want me to be a craftsman: it does my head in. They ask you to design the interior of X, Y and Z’s yacht or plane and you’re not free to express what you want.
So would you object to a piece you love being hung in a place you deem inappropriate?
If they buy it and it’s agreed at the point of sale, that’s fine. Of course, you hope in your heart that it will be hung in a museum or a lobby or somewhere it can be viewed and appreciated. But I’ve got into a couple of fights with people who want me to etch their sofa – and that’s always a battle. You’ve just got to stick to what you want to do.
A lot of your art is centered on money. What’s the idea behind that?
The pieces that have meant the most to me over the last couple of years have been all about finance – about looking at money through a different lens. That was inspired by a maverick entrepreneur – a Wall Street Investor who essentially bought a year of my time to create a show about greed and power, and all that money can do for the positive and negative. That was like letting a kid loose in a sweet shop. It was my most creative year to date. It was explosive.
So do you enjoy your work more now that you are successful?
I love what I do. In the past I had to do commissions because I had to feed my own. But I want to be challenged. I don’t want to do someone’s dog or kids. And now I can do bigger pieces, some people even approach me looking for an investment. That’s the big thing. My pieces have gone up significantly – trebling in a year. That’s just astronomical.
Maybe you could sell ‘Canvas Number 1’ - your ‘Eureka’ leather jacket?
Oh, I’ll never sell it. Never.
So which piece of work are you most proud of?
‘Woa Jimi’ is one of my favorites. It’s all about the American soldiers raising the dollar flag. It’s four panels of leather and it’s essentially a collision of good and evil, dark and light. The propaganda of war encourages people to go and fight – and yet war is about money, oil rights, pipelines. Men are nothing. They are disposable, so they become plastic toy soldiers. The way modern war is pitched to us, we don’t feel we’re behind Churchill saving Europe from a Nazi Overlord. We suspect we’re just going in to rape a nation for its oil. I think this is an important piece.
If you could go back 15 years and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
Not to be afraid to follow my instinct. To be fearless - or rather to refuse to allow fear to hold me back.
Sadly, our 60 minutes is at an end and Mark is called upon to divert his considerable energies elsewhere. I can’t tell whether he found our chat a little obtuse or faintly cathartic - but whatever he says about having to dance to the world’s tune, his work plainly speaks for itself. It is not turgid, impenetrable or impossibly high-brow. It doesn’t seek sycophantic gasps of admiration from gushingly erudite critics who are desperate to be part of the club by claiming to understand. It is something far less pretentious and far more pungent. It is textural, sculptural, physical art, as immediate in its impact as it is original in its concept.
For a closer look at Mark’s work, visit www.markevansart.com.