Interview by Frédéric Caillard, June 2018
How did you get to work with material related to building maintenance?
I used to work for an independent contractor in New York City doing demolition and renovation work. Around 2009, I transitioned into a job as a superintendent where I was doing a lot of building maintenance for a dilapidated apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. The landscape, neighborhood community & history and my own labor— painting, mopping twice a week, working on scaffolding, working with hoses, maintaining a backyard and a sidewalk— all came to fascinate me. Those materials and movements remained like memories in my muscles and started coming out in my practice.
Evan Robarts, Untitled, Tenant, 2016 / hydrocal plaster, vinyl tile on wood panel / 152,4 x 121,9 x 4,1 cm. Photo Tim Schutsky.
There is an interesting contradiction in your Mop paintings. Mops are supposed to clean, but in your work they leave some traces, some marks.
In the making of these works I’m walking over tiles and re-enacting the performance of janitorial work: scrubbing, pushing, and dragging a mop in a vain attempt at sterilizing something that can’t be cleaned. These works speak to menial labor, frustration and social failure, but in another sense they are a celebration of the formal quality of brushstrokes.
Evan Robarts, Untitled, Tenant, 2017 / hydrocal plaster, vinyl tile on wood panel / 152,4 x 121,9 x 4,1 cm. Photo Tim Schustky.
And the failure is rendered visually by the surface looking dirtier after it was mopped! […] The Mop paintings are made on tiled panels. There is a global image continuity over the tiles, but yet the tile separations can be seen. It seems to imply that continuity is not natural…
That’s correct: the gridded substrate reinforces the notion of equality and order, all of which is compromised when a brush stroke is applied blurring those divisions. The separations between each tile may at certain points disrupt the gesture, catching debris, cracking, creating bubbles and pools of plaster. The continuity of the brushstroke doesn’t always result in a seamless movement; it may bead, disintegrate, or get stepped on. Continuity is not natural, it’s an illusion, an ideal of perfection that lacks personality.
The idea of compartments is present in your Mop paintings but also in your Scaffold series and Chain Links works.
Compartmentalized space can be played with, broken or respected, which has obvious political undertones. […] The chain link is a utilitarian boundary. It restricts someone from going from one space to another and calls into question property and social control. The balls connote youth, a point in most people lives where they are free to believe in anything, move freely and take chances. The final product is a filter of sorts, catching the artifacts of youth, reminding us of the reality of growing up, how dreams die, and the pressure of conforming to social norms.
Evan Robarts, Recess n°2, 2013 / found balls in chain link gate / 152,4 x 96,5 x 10,2 cm. Photo Richie Talboy.
In another body of work, you have basketballs literally imprisoned in a metal structure.
Much of my earlier work focused on the restriction of movement and mobility, particularly with youth and nostalgia. These particular sculptures were a starting point for me. I collected discarded basketballs, stuffed them with foam and encased them in glass by soldering a shell around the ball. The result looked like a molecule of sorts. It was also the first time I had worked with glass, which has stayed with me.
“…being bound to an idea stifles exploration and vulnerability”
In your Water Hoses series, hoses are paired with sheets of glass. The hoses appear to be free floating at first sight but they are actually constrained, with anchor points and fixed passages. It is unusual to put the idea of constraint in perspective with the concept of transparency.
I have a way of playing with contradictions, like the mop that cleans but the outcome is dirty. I work with qualities which are at opposite ends of the spectrum: in the glass-and-hose-works, one is an elastic material and one very fragile. The history of that body of work comes from the relationship I had with tenants in the building I cared for as a superintendent. Conversations between us were generally uncomfortable, and the only times we ever spoke was when they needed something to be fixed. The glass personifies an invisible boundary that prevented me from connecting with them as a friend or equal. In a utilitarian sense, the hose is a vessel for the transition of water and a penetrating force that carries information from one side to the other. It is the ability to communicate and it is language, malleable and slippery. In these works, I wanted to give shape to the conversations we had and the underlying tensions that were there as a segue to the topic of gentrification unfolding in that neighborhood.
Evan Robarts, Hoop Dreams, 2012 / found Basketball, glass, solder / 27,9 round. Photo Peter Vahan.
You have described the hoses as drawing lines. There are also clear expressionist brushstrokes references in your Mop paintings. What is the relationship of your work to art history?
Art history is a cornerstone for me. Abstract Expressionism, Modernism, Arte Povera, Earth Art, Performance Art all push and pull me. In this sense it’s also been my biggest hurdle. Much of my practice is my trying to break away from where art history has left me and my inevitable failure trying to reinvent this wheel. Referencing my personal history has become a starting point in this process, which has led to more successful moments of formal invention and ingenuity. To be fair, the Mop paintings are the least successful in this sense as I have uncovered many Eastern artists whose brush and calligraphic work predate particular movements I employ. That being said, what sets the Mop paintings apart is the context. The act of mopping is rooted in the performance of labor and speaks to a particular socioeconomic demographic. The final product is ultimately an artifact of that ritual.
Evan Robarts, Release, 2015 / hose, glass, steel hardware / 182,9 x 121,9 x 38,1 cm. Photo The Hole Gallery.
I was wondering how your creative process is sequenced. Do you have an idea first and you try to shape it visually, or does the material come first and the ideas and messages are grafted on top? I have overarching ideas for my work, like memory, youth, nostalgia, labor, urban ephemera, broader socio-economic issues that are unfolding here in the US, but there isn’t a methodology or equation for me. Sometimes there’s an idea, but it is very subtle and malleable. Other times the idea is hidden, and I need to search for it by physically tumbling creative energy around in the studio. Then there are times where ideas come like a download: I see the work completed in my mind and I need to figure out what the work means to me, which can be complicated but also profound. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s very healthy and challenging to commit to a solid idea and develop a pointed critique of sorts. Working from your left to right brain seems to be an industry standard, but I caution artists who only embrace this approach. In my experience, being bound to an idea stifles exploration and vulnerability. Because my work is material driven, I tend to lean on intuition, chance, mistakes, and failure as a vehicle that drives the art. It’s is a process of letting go and remembering, allowing yourself to forget your idea and then come back to it in a new meaningful way.
“…there is a part of my practice that needs to exist in the unknown so I can find it”
A lot of your works is based on material that comes from building maintenance. By definition, maintenance activities try to fight the effect of time but time ends-up winning in the long-term, maintenance is always behind.
Yes, it is a losing battle; there’s no building I know of ahead of that curve — it all seems to be a failed attempt at catching up. The repetition of building maintenance chronicles the passing of time and speaks to a broader conversation of life and death. There is beauty in that failure, very human, it resonates in me in a very fundamental way.
Do you see your work as being about passing time and decay?
Decay, entropy, death come up as a way to explore time and the ephemeral. I have a strong desire to revisit my childhood and hold onto particular moments. I am fascinated by the way history molds us and how memories stick around long after the experience ends. That desire epitomizes my research into youth.
Perhaps somebody speaking about my work in the future might be able to use passing time as an umbrella theme but I see time as a dimension I am caught in, like in a web. And in the end, I think I don’t want to know my grander motive. If I were to know, my work wouldn’t be what it is. I think that there is a part of my practice that needs to exist in the unknown so I can find it for myself.
Main Illustration: Evan Robarts, Installation View of Super Reliable at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallerie, 2016 Photo Tim Schutsky.