In "Subjection and Discipline", Jake Wood-Evans presents an arresting series of oil paintings, drawings and - for the first time ever - sculpture. Featuring both portraits and seascapes, the daringly beautiful and disturbing new pieces, which reference the work of British artists from the 18th century, depict distorted admirals, generals and ladies in full establishment regalia, figures both commanding and spectral. Including declared re-workings of Reynolds and Raeburn, the works develop the style of historical ambiguity for which Wood-Evans has become widely admired. Viewed together, the body of work is eerily reminiscent of an art collection that could have hung on the walls of dining rooms or grand hallways in the great houses of the early empire.
The paintings depict voyages of discovery and conquest, the dress and costume of power, as well as images of the gentry at leisure – the war and peace of the era’s ruling class. Just as varnish discolours and cracks on the surface of once proud and polished original paintings, these fractured re-imaginings are tarnished with a certain shame and dishonour: modern knowledge of this complex period of British history clouds the once heroic subjects. Wood-Evans’ presents new works that are imbued with the drama and beauty of the old imagery, but which display its faded sheen. Faces and figures appear as apparitions, dubious and obscure.
Yet these works are far from being a sanctimonious denunciation of our ancestors’ evils. Wood-Evans’ process is perhaps an even bigger factor in the overall effect of his art than his subject matter. Obsessed with studying and learning from the masters of art history, he physically delves into each painting, building up and recreating elements in order to understand the image. From this starting point the real story of exploration begins. By scrubbing, scratching and erasing some sections while building up others, Wood-Evans’ paintings are physically pushed and pulled out of the canvas. The resulting piece bears the marks of his own journey of discovery. The original image has been pillaged and agitated, resulting in a new work that has an uncanny reminiscence but contains its own sumptuous beauty. Thick layers of paint contrast with saturated oil on canvas, laying the grain bare to see. The paintings are just as fascinating up close as they are deeply impressive viewed in their entirety.
For Wood-Evans, excavating layers of paint and reworking the motifs and atmosphere of Old Master paintings has been a natural process. Those are the images that surround him every day, in the books and pictures that litter his studio, on the internet, during gallery visits. For him, studying these works has become a window into a time where craftsmanship, beauty and real expression were revered. Rather than denying their continued influence on modern art and turning away from making direct reference, Wood-Evans has embraced and celebrated his relationship with classical works.