LOUISVILLE, KY — Much has been said about Appalachia in recent years, often unkind, and often by people who haven’t spent much time (if any) in the sprawling and diverse region. But the nine paintings that form the heart of the exhibition Ceirra Evans: It’s Okay to Go Home at Moremen Gallery offer a more complex and generous response to the stale and sneering stereotypes. With a soft frankness and gentle humor, Evans (who was born and raised in the Appalachian region of Kentucky) invites us into a world of smoke-filled break rooms and drive-through food banks, a place where success is hard-won and small joys are found in a pack of Marlboro Reds.
One great pleasure for the viewer is that Evans’s works are as much about painting as they are about her subjects. In “Y’all Full of Crud” (2022), two girls casually perch on the hood of an old car, the olive green of its finish echoed in the verdant countryside surrounding it. Evans creates the lush landscape through hurried horizontal and vertical brushstrokes that, from a distance, appear more like the work of magic markers than oil paint. In other places, she allows the silver and green detailing of the car to drip into painterly abstraction.
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The girls themselves are rendered with a tempered realism, coaxing depth and dimension from a restrained color palette. They appear to be around 11 or 12 years old, their faces free of makeup, hairstyles slightly unkempt, and clothing unprovocative (a pink striped t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, sandals worn with socks). That childlike innocence, however, is dispelled with one small but emphatic white brush stroke: our crud-talking tweens are already well-versed in cigarettes. A cluster of white smoke circles, likely applied with a palette knife, whirl and hover in front of the young subjects with all the playfulness of cotton candy.
Evans also possesses a cinematic eye for framing, a knack for dropping us into a scene that’s already in progress, as with “No Politics at the Table” (2021), in which four adults gather in relaxed postures around a kitchen table, beneath a haze of cigarette smoke. Individual TV dinners each contain their own modernist grid of green beans, golden corn, and pallid meat; the view outside the window is reduced to a yellow block of sunlight. One figure, seated with his back to us, wears a dark, patterned shirt created through a thick, sinuous application of paint that makes the garment more real in its abstraction. Three small clouds drift upward from his head to join the mass of smoke congregating at the top of the canvas, little puffs that recall thought bubbles in a cartoon panel. Perhaps smoking creates its own communion, a ritual act that eclipses the need for verbal communication.
In “Bar Scene” (2021), cigarettes are not seen, only suggested: the main character, a rather nondescript white man in a striped collared shirt and slacks, leans back against the bar, beer bottle in hand and appreciative smile directed at some slightly distant light source — a stage, maybe? — the golden light tracing the side of his face. The rest of the room is obscured in broad brushstrokes of dark brown, amber, and ochre, with flashes of crimson red and lightning yellow: one only has to squint to mistake it for the tempestuous sky in a painting by John Martin or another of the Romantics. And indeed, there is a romance to the work, a willing nostalgia for the convivial neighborhood bar, for the pleasure of cigarettes and beer without consequence.
Still, Evans can’t turn away from tobacco’s more pernicious effects on a population that suffers from some of the country’s highest rates of C.O.P.D. “Bless His Heart,” the title of a 2022 work, is heard as often as “Good morning” in the South, and here the phrase tragically finds its literal application. In what appears to be a break room, five white men sit around a red Formica table, generating black plumes of smoke reminiscent of the sinister smog that rises from factories. In the foreground, a man lies prone on the floor, his body turned away from us and his arms clutching at his chest. His friend or co-worker kneels to examine him, a lit cigarette still in the grip of his concerned mouth. The title conveys a kind of sardonic sympathy, yet the lack of concern of the men at the table for their stricken peer registers as resignation that can be endemic to economically depressed communities.
The show’s titular work (2022) might be the most personal: the artist’s mother leans against an ornamental metal column on her front porch, smoking a cigarette as she listens to her daughter, who stands with her back to us. Evans appears in a camouflage t-shirt and jeans, brown hair shaved into a mohawk, cigarette in mouth and trash bag in hand. Here, the artist eschews abstract passages for a greater density of details — her mother’s bright blue Crocs, for instance, or the letters of the local university on the t-shirt covering her slightly frumpy body, the bright red tie of the black garbage bag — that signify a certain class likely unfamiliar to many gallery visitors. (Bath County, where Evans grew up, is more than 96% white and has a median household income of less than $45,000.)
The artist’s portrayal of her home and family is neither disparaging nor venerating, but rather an unflinchingly honest look at a population that has become indelibly linked with poverty, poor health, and social issues. In depicting herself smoking with her mother, Evans allows for her complicity in the region’s omnipresent vice without condemning or satirizing it. Rather, her work shows a willingness to see something much richer and more complicated, people who are simultaneously flawed and funny and sad and loving — in a word, human.
Ceirra Evans: It’s Okay to Go Home continues at Moremen Gallery (710 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky) through February 19.