Liz Louis - 'The Americans' by David Pugh Evans

Podcast Transcript
The Americans by David Pugh Evans

My name is Liz Louis and I'm one of the Fine Art curators at Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums. If I could only pick one work as a favourite from our collection, I would have to go for The Americans by David Pugh Evans. It is a painting, oil on canvas, from 1991-92, purchased in 1992 with the aid of a grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions.

David Pugh Evans was born in South Wales in 1942 and studied at Newport College of Art from 1959 to 1962 and the Royal College of Art, London from 1962 to 1965. He moved to Scotland and became lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art in 1965 until his retirement in 1998. He has travelled and studied extensively throughout the United States of America, hence presumably his choice for this particular work. A large retrospective of his work was held at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in 1982.

The composition of The Americans is straightforward: there is a chair in the centre, and above it, on a brown wall, an old photo of a couple, possibly the Americans referred to in the title. Someone placed an apple and a pear on the chair.

It is a pretty recent work, but it reminds me of work created earlier in the 20th century by painters such as Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper, who painted similarly realistic but enigmatic scenes. Like the Belgian Surrealist Magritte, Evans tends to use the same objects in several of his works and I would encourage you to have a look at the Art UK website and see this for yourself: for example the photograph recurs in Fragile Union from 1984-85 at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. In this painting, the photograph is on a different wall, and you can see the reflection of a white door and of a window, with a very narrow view of a tree outside. The reflection emphasises the glass in the photo frame, but tension comes from the fact that there is a hammer (another recurring element) precariously perched on the table to the lower left of the photo. If the hammer smashed the glass of the frame, would that symbolise the end of the seemingly happy couple in the picture?

In fact, much of his work focuses on pictures within pictures, and he is highly skilled in painting reflections on glass or in making fruit appear deceptively real, much in the tradition of the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. This hyperrealist style, the attempt to create a painting that looks like a photograph, has itself got a history that is closely linked to American art through painters like John Frederick Peto, among others. It complicates our understanding of what an artist is meant to be and of what a painting is. It emphasises the artifice, the un-reality of what we are looking at, yet we are happily deceived and tempted into accepting the painted for the real thing. And it works: when I first came across a photograph of this painting on our database, I thought it was a photograph of an installation!

It is also reminiscent of a very well-known painting called American Gothic by the American painter Grant Wood from 1930. The serious-faced, bespectacled man with the pitch fork and the woman next to him are very different from the hopeful and glamorous young couple in Evans's paintings but both couples stand for stereotypes in American society. Evans took his inspiration for their clothes from "tintypes from my old family album." Which of course makes me wonder even more about the origin of the photo in Evans's work.

I like the painting because of the artist's technical skill and because it is so loaded with art-historical baggage. But I also like it because there is a certain mystery around it, we are left to piece together the story around this strange arrangement of objects. Does this photograph actually exist? Who are the people in the photograph? Who has put up this photograph in their house? How much symbolism should we read into the apple and pear? Some of his paintings are visual puns, are the apple and pear therefore meant as a comment on the uneasy relationship between the two? Should we take into account the symbolism of Fragile Union to interpret The Americans? Why should we assume that there is a story behind this bizarre arrangement anyway?