Different Strokes

Alba Ziegler-Bailey 15 November 2007

“East meets West” is a phrase that has, on more than one occasion, poured into my heart the icy fear of bad taste-particularly when talking about the visual arts. It was with a tinge of this fear that I went to meet Jane Evans, who paints East-Anglian and French landscapes with Chinese ink, brushes and paper. Was this going to be a terrible cliche?

As it turns out, it wasn’t. Trained in the Philippines by masters of the art of Chinese brush painting, Jane is immersed in the compositions and strokes traditional to Chinese painting and her sense of light and perspective is thoroughly and unmistakably oriental. Even so, she lives and works in Cambridge so most of the scenes she paints-the market square, mathematical bridge, King’s college chapel-are familiar to every Cambridge student. In fact, the Eastern quality of her paintings is, in some cases, less obvious than their familiarity. “If your eye wasn’t trained,” she says, showing me a French village in winter, “you might not know I was using Chinese media, because it’s so obviously the West.”

And yet, each of her paintings is steeped in the ideas of traditional Chinese painting. Jane explains to me the curious layering of the landscape in Chinese painting-the idea is that you experience the subject of the painting as if you were walking through it, beginning with the foreground and working your way to the back. What seems, at first, like an artificial dissecting and stacking of the scene into foreground, middle distance and far distance becomes the eye’s walk through the three ‘stages’ of the painting, so that the scene exists for the viewer in terms of time and space. Court painters in China used to try to imitate for the viewer the serenity of a life of prayer and meditation, giving those who were too busy to meditate a sort of ‘quick fix’. Jane uses this layering to similar effect-allowing your eye to wander meditatively through the busy market square and calmly over the choppy North Sea at Southwold.

“The greatest advantage (and disadvantage) of Chinese brush painting is the speed with which you must make your mark,” Jane tells me. The absorbency of the paper and the unusual amount of water the brushes are capable of holding mean that for a clean line the painter must act fast and with conviction. The eye’s progress through the painting is sped by the dynamic pointed strokes she places as guiding marks, or signposts. In her best paintings, these marks are few and decisive. One of the most striking, Shepherd’s Warning, is no more than three black strokes, representing fields or water, or whatever you like, and overhung by a brooding red sun.

How does she avoid the clichés? Partly it is the incidental nature of the way in which she blends East and West which makes her work seem uncontrived. The Chinese ideal of conveying fundamental realities in visual form is tempered, in her words, with “a Western, more practical soul”. Having studied Archaeology & Anthropology here at Cambridge, Jane began brush painting in the Philippines when “batik became too hot and sticky” and she wanted something she could do in an air-conditioned room. After moving back to Cambridge, she began to paint what was around her using the techniques she knew best.

I ask a question about the ‘translation’ involved in painting western subjects with Eastern materials. “I just do what I know best, informed by what I’ve grown up with and the things around me,” she replies, dismissing the clever theory I’d thought up to explain it all. There are few contrived theories here-just experimentation with technique and perspective to make new kinds of pictures.

Alba Ziegler-Bailey