J. Vehar-Evanoff's soft-spoken and humble demeanor may surprise those who meet the bearded, tattoo-covered artist. His work, too, presents a fascinating contradiction, toying at every juncture between forceful abstraction and subtle fragility.
His most recent exhibition “Submerged Reflection,” now on display at Modern West Fine Art, is a bold departure from his earlier work. Comprised of large abstract paintings, "Reflection" grants insight into the wonderful world of Vehar-Evanoff’s artistic mind. The show also marks a shift for the traditionally Western-focused gallery, which has now expanded its scope to encompass contemporary abstract art.
As an undoubtedly Western state, Utah’s artists have always struggled to isolate the state’s signature style. Too far north to be part of Southwestern motifs, and not commonly associated with John Wayne-style Old West, Utah’s lush mountainous scenery bears witness to the state’s unique identity as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the many artists paying homage to its history.
In turn, Utah’s art scene is devoid of a predominant style and instead is rich with an array of artistic voices whose experimentation is evident by the numerous galleries scattered across the Salt Lake Valley. Vehar-Evanoff is both a strong addition to the local scene and an outsider, as someone unafraid to think outside the proverbial artistic box.
A self-trained artist, Vehar-Evanoff began his career as a technical illustrator and worked as a designer for more than 15 years before focusing on art exclusively. After shifting to painting full time, he hit the ground running by visiting Modern West one afternoon upon a friend’s suggestion that his work would be a good fit for the gallery. While unsolicited submissions are typically a no-go for commercial galleries, Modern West was impressed and decided to represent him on the spot.
His tenure at the gallery began triumphantly with a series of horse paintings. Crafted in a dynamic, painterly fashion, the pieces capture the energy of horses in flight. In each, a large horse gallops gloriously from the left side of the frame, cropped mid-flight as if the artist has caught the animal in a frozen moment of time. These powerful horse paintings have bold brushwork and a sketchy unfinished quality that anticipates Vehar-Evanoff’s later abstract works.
In 2015, Vehar-Evanoff created a series of “Portraits.” Here, he replaced his once feverish brushwork with a series of tightly contoured lines. Mapped atop grand faces of Native American leaders, together the lines created a visually intoxicating effect.
In "Submerged Reflections," Vehar-Evanoff has pushed the envelope even further, painting fully abstract works that create visual connotations to Utah’s rich landscape. For him, Modern West’s shifting focus from predominantly Western to abstract art was serendipitous.
“Abstract art is the purest, most physical form of art-making. Although it's often harder to quantify than realism, it comes across in a more personal voice,” Vehar-Evanoff said.
As two examples, “Submerged I” and “Reflection I” appear at once to be desert dreamscapes, with two-thirds of each canvas covered in dizzying layers of brushstrokes and drips. For a native Utahn, it’s impossible not to connote these abstract wonders with Utah’s red desert, reminiscent of the ancient geological forms oscillating magnificently in places like Arches or Bryce Canyon. Others, including a series of "Untitled" works, evidence the intoxicating madness and excitement of pure abstraction.
“This process comes from a meditative place, like a conversation between me and the piece,” Vehar-Evanoff said.
The scale of his paintings, he said, is perfect for hand movement. Indeed, the physicality of his undertaking translates onto each painting’s surface, where viewers can readily detect the careful dance between control and liberation.
For anyone skeptical about abstract art, or perhaps those with more traditional tastes, “Submerged Reflections” is an informative experience. Vehar-Evanoff's abstract canvases evidence a primal process of movement and interaction, one that radiates outward to viewers and leaves an impression they won’t soon forget.
If you go
What: J. Vehar-Evanoff, “Submerged Reflections”
Where: Modern West Fine Art, 177 E 200 South.
When: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Scotti Hill is an art historian and law student at S.J. Quinney College of Law, where she specializes in intellectual property. She's taught courses in art history at Westminster College and the University of Utah and works as a freelance art critic