Collage Paintings at SJSU’s Natalie and James Thompson Gallery

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

The Chinese General Writes, 29-11-05, Connor Everts at San Jose State’s Thompson gallery

 

It was worth a special trip from Seattle to San Jose on a Tuesday night to see the opening of the Connor Everts exhibition in the Thompson Gallery of San Jose State’s Art Department and hear his former student, Professor Patrick Surgalski, recall events of the artist’s life through decades of work as a teacher, baseball player, gallerist, and longshoreman.  Connor Everts’ was born in Bellingham, Washington in 1928, and became one of those charismatic artists to enter the art world after traveling, engaging the revolutionary politics of the late 50s and 60s, and attending art school on the GI bill.  He returned to teach at his alma mater, Chouinard, and  then at the San Francisco Art Institute along with the University of Washington and the University of Southern California, and finally at Cranbrook, Michigan.  Surgalski regaled the audience with stories of Everts’ wicked sense of humor and non-conformist approaches to teaching art, some of which resulted in severed relations with those academic institutions.  Connors’ wife Judy joined into the testimonial of life in the classroom with Connor Everts.  She described the sexual implications — for both male and female students  — of being asked to reach into a box covered with a pair of jockey shorts and draw what they experienced inside.  Everts left teaching in chilly Michigan in 1981 to devote himself exclusively to a daily regimen in his beloved Torrance studio.

 

In the late 50s, Everts founded the short-lived Exodus Gallery in San Pedro, California.  In a town where there was no art activity, he introduced important and controversial artists particularly in assemblage, who were destined to become Los Angeles legends.  Artists of Everts’ generation were often bigger than life, as he is still, indeed.  The visionary spirit of Exodus Gallery has been honored in San Pedro with the New Exodus Gallery, a site-specific program of inventive arts events in the old town center.

Connor Everts:  Layers of imagery, epochs of times of the artist’s life and the evocative reference: Exodus Gallery

 

Connor Everts had several brushes with the law in the course of his life.  He tackled art censorship head-on when the L.A. vice squad shut down a Ferus Gallery exhibition of artwork by Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz for “indecency” and he rehung the offending work in Exodus Gallery, earning himself a part in the ensuing legal difficulties.  His own show at the Zora Gallery in 1964, Studies in Desperation, was closed for standards of obscenity at that time.  A final blow, personal and life changing, was a severe police beating during the Viet Nam area over a trumped up issue, leaving one hand damaged and without feeling.  From that time Everts saw his own art and work as a journey of the individual artist.

 

Everts’ affinity for the grid was strongly influenced by Mondrian, and his early work had a Modernist minimalism that reveals that influence. He often supported himself as a longshoreman, and the containers with stamps, labels and graphics in foreign tongues and type also became an integral part of his visual vocabulary. Everts was a cofounder of the Los Angeles Printmaking Society.  He was responsible for naming vitreography, a process of printmaking on a glass plate, which he explored in the studio of colleague, Harvey Littleton.  His prolific collage paintings since the early 90s stand strongly among the graphic works that, beginning in the 60s, began to merge aspects of painting and fine arts with popular graphic arts, building on the grid, inserting typography, collage and personal notations – all corruptions of an unwritten ethic of Modernism that forbade mixing disciplines and further devalued the lesser graphic practices of works on paper.  Such giants as Rauchenberg and Johns broke ground on the East Coast with their irreverent mixing of painterliness and popular graphic influences.  But on the west Coast, a version of the same exploration with many individual artistic takes was also unfolding.

Askesis, 1-7-07, Connor Everts

 

In the 70’s, San Jose saw Word Works and words working into art through the radical influence of the SJSU Gallery Director of that time, Jessica Jacobs.  Jacobs was something of a political agitator and dedicated to the concept that the injection of words into visual art was, with all the manipulative power of words and importance of speech, a doorway into the political effectiveness of the postmodern artist.  Her exhibition, Word Works, curated originally for a 1974 exhibition at Mt, San Antonio College was reformed for the SJSU Art Department’s main Gallery in 1976.  The exhibition was painting, drawing, and prints by over 100 artists that were using letters, words and text in creative and defiant ways.  It was still a time of shaking-up the modernist and minimalist canon and showed how far many in a new generation had moved beyond the existential imperative of abstract expressionism.   Word Works was also the opportunity to imagine how extensively the invasion of words and letters into the vocabulary of visuals could expand possibilities in both form and content for the artist. Half a century since the revolutions of the 60’s, the fascinating and limitless nature of word/image continues to provoke curators, designers, art historians and philosophers in an ongoing search for definitive meaning.

Connor Everts: Painting 3, collage and paint on paper

The current Connor Everts exhibition in the same space where Wordworks was seen resonates with that epoch, yet offers fresh answers to the challenge of making meaning, as words do their work within visual art.  Everts, in particular, calls up the relationship of particular fonts, type faces and international characters or scripts to each other as both design and an expression of a cultural character.  He further introduces a contrast of the crisp machine-age commercially printed type against the hand drawn letter forms that attempt to imitate it.  The words and encrypted personal notations in an only partially legible section of hand-done script further his contemplation of the range of expression of letter forms and words.  Most of the letter forms appear weathered, as if having been painted by hand and exposed to the elements for years. Moods in his works are often dictated by a combination of color and the kind of gesture he paints in semi-transparent washes into the fields behind, over and around more specific image elements.  A stamp of the artist’s hand in wet paint often seems to function as an exclamation point, a reminder of art as an eternal, fundamental means of communication.

 

Everts likes to call his compositions a meeting of disparate parts.  This is not to say they do not assume a significance beyond the formal.  The letters and words and scraps of paper are, nevertheless, frequently meaningful to the artist through personal meditations, may reference small fragments of his own life, and appear as code to be deciphered by the artist only.  Other references, such as the baseball, a beer can, or the words AUTOMATIC Stick Shift for instance, and exodus gallery are more easily accessed by the viewer, as are flags and postage stamps that connect to history, travel, observations of commerce and movement on the docks and an artist’s restless journey.  His work also seems to evoke his studio by the railroad tracks, the imagery and symbolism of railroad cars, and a weathered era of the rails.

 

Connor Everts: The Chinese General Writes, 6-5-06

 

A series of images under the title The Chinese General Writes, from 2005-2006, particularly embraces the kind of engaging surface that layering paint, then handbills, then more paint and slapped on messages and stickers present over time.  Unidentified Asian characters – scrawled at an angle, a bold red word in the Cyrillic alphabet and stenciled ABCs join a collaged image of art viewers at a salon exhibition and a zigzag yellow-gold arrow on a whitewashed surface.  The yellow arrow conducts a formal dialogue with another small gold-hued rectangular image in the upper right corner.  Beneath the white layer we see blue outlines of rectangles that function to draw back into the grid, more faint layers of red and black Asian characters and a large blue “Five”.  It is impossible to see how deeply the layers are piled up. In speaking pf this series, the artist tells of his reflections on war, its futility in problem solving, and the complexity of interpersonal relationships that are affected both during and after such profound events.

Connor Everts: Painting 4, collage and paint on paper

 

Many other works in this show function within a brown field that recall the sides of dusty, rusty rail cars, fences along the right-of-way and cargo containers.  All seem to look back to eras lived by Connor Everts in the political history of the last 60 years, the art world and especially Southern California. Those “disparate parts” that at first may appear random, begin to take on meaning and combine to make their own statement as one pieces together the fascinating history of the artist’s life.

 

Leaving Everts’ exhibition of collage paintings in the Thompson Gallery, one may have noted and wondered about the signature in a lower corner of each work: Loren D. Sims.  Surgalski tells how, once upon a time, a curator took exception to Everts’ custom of signing his works on the back.  Everts stood his ground, refusing to sign in front, insisting that the viewer would know the author of the work anyway.  However, leaving the exhibition site, Everts found a pile of parking tickets in the street discarded by the “scofflaw” Loren D. Sims.  Inspired, he decided that such notable civic disobedience would earn Sims’ name an ongoing spot in his artworks henceforth.

 

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