When I decided to start making studio visits and interviewing artists, Marlos E’van was at the top of my list. I met him at his show at WAG in January and was so struck by his work. One of the things that disappoints me about Nashville artists is how little they engage with issues that affect their neighbors. The deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so many more people whose images didn’t make it to the nightly news should have all of us in a chokehold, but few artists in Nashville have been given space to respond to it, and that’s assuming there are more than a couple artists who want to.
Marlos E’van’s WAG exhibition Funkhaus, which I wrote about here for the Scene, caught my attention because he was so clearly responding to his role as an artist and the responsibilities that come with it. Marlos is the antidote for the self-involved mediocrity. He struck me as being the kind of person who cannot tell a lie to save face or make people feel comfortable. He has powerful messages about racial strife in America, police brutality, and the representation of black men and women in our culture. His work is passionate and deeply personal, yet tightly constructed to speak to viewers about issues we mostly try not to think about. Some of his compositions require a patient viewer to parse out the narrative, while others are wrenchingly plain; either way, the work and its message are impossible to dismiss. Also, he’s hyper aware of how people view his work and what assumptions they bring to that experience. In Funkhaus, he hung several “ritual staffs” like guns above a mantel. Here, he makes fun of people who call his work “raw” and “primitive” by making their critique literal.
Marlos took me through his home and laid out piece after piece on his floors, on his kitchen table, and even in his yard.
Erica Ciccarone: Why do you like working on fabric?
Marlos E’van: I love fashion and the way fabric feels. It offers and big canvas space, which I like. I sew them together and make them as big as possible. It gets the message across with the images and lets it breathe. There’s always fabric around here.
EC: Did you just graduate?
ME: I’m graduating this semester coming up. Then I’m getting out of the school.
EC: You get to that point where you’re ready to be through with it.
ME: Uh huh. I didn’t have time for shit this semester.
EC: How have you seen your work progress and change since you’ve been at Watkins?
ME: Definitely it got more honed in, the microscope became finer. It’s nice because I started locking down what I wanted more. It was a weird situation because what I do, people don’t know how to teach. For the longest, they tried to veer me away from it. It was like, “Oh it’s so raw, it’s so this, it’s so that.” People who were going there, the ones with all the student shows were the ones that were doing refined drawings and stuff like that.
EC: That’s disappointing to hear.
ME: It sucks. It thickened my skin though because when everybody is looking at it in the institution and saying, this doesn’t stand up to this, in actuality if you really look at the two, one is more powerful. That was one of the things I had to deal with.
EC: What’s back there? Tell me about that one.
ME: That is one of the first big paintings I did when I got to Nashville. It was dealing with family on the left and then that’s me with the pink hat on, offering a rose to my Venus. It’s really dealing with the objectification of women, that’s why the dollar bill is on her head. I was thinking about how Cezanne and all of them constructed women or people in pastoral scenes but then censoring it too as well. It’s like, no, she’s not an object, but what do you see her as? That’s my hair right there, too.
EC: What’s that over there?
ME: That’s my primitive dog. It pops up in my work.
EC: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot and trying to write about is how I feel like Nashville has this much better art scene now than its ever had, and lots of artists being able to show their stuff, all the new galleries that have opened. But in large, I don’t see a lot of work that’s responding to social issues. Where I do see it is coming from students: Alanna Styer’s photography, that whole “in Living” show. Your work, London Thomas’ work at TSU…so it’s not all that surprising that it’s younger artists who are reflecting the society back to us because I think that’s very traditional, but it still disappoints me that more artists aren’t engaging with social issues and racism and systems of oppression.
ME: It’s definitely disappointing.
EC: Do you have any thoughts on that?
ME: I’m driven to do it because I’m still susceptible to being a victim of this. I can be pulled over at any time and get my brains bashed in. I’ve been in those situations of being pulled out the car by a cop because I had dread locks. Automatically, “Where’s the dope at?” Plenty of times. As far as people not doing it, well, people have gotten fat and comfortable. It’s like, Am I gonna risk giving up my 58 inch flat screen to say something that’s real? A lot of people don’t want to do that once they get comfortable. With student artists, we’re at the point where we don’t have shit right now. We don’t have big fat cribs and all the cars and shit. We don’t have anything to lose anyway because we’re out here living it. So shit, we’re talking about it. At least that’s where I’m coming from. I risk it all to make a damn change. I can’t help it.
EC: Is this a shopping list?
ME: Yeah. If you notice a lot of things that are happening are when people are doing regularly, ordinary things. Travon Martin was going to the corner store. I still don’t understand how [George Zimmerman’s] walking around.
EC: He was just arrested again for beating the shit out of someone.
ME: I heard he got shot.
EC: It’s crazy. I feel like everything else he does since then is flaunting the fact that he got off. Are you religious?
ME: I’m spiritual. Not really religious.
EC: Did you grow up in the church?
ME: Yeah I did. Southern Baptist. All that good stuff.
Religion and crosses are in my work, but it’s coming from the idea of how even with hangings and slavery, it was always backed by religion according to the oppressors. It’s a pretty interesting notion. I’ve got my black athletes.
ME: That’s Roy Jones. He’s 48 and still boxes. These pictures are from his prime. Have you heard of Floyd Mayweather? He was 100 times better and actually fought. This dude was unbeatable.
EC: Why do you think you’re drawn to athletes in your work?
ME: The idea of having it all. And being a price tag. Look at people behind him holding his belts for him, but then as soon as you’re done in people’s eyes, there you go. Isolated. Sad. Colorless. It happens so many times. I use Mike Tyson a lot in my work. It definitely happened to him.
ME: This [below] is something I’m probably gonna make into a big painting.
EC: Pastels are a good medium for you. When you’re making pieces like these, do you knock it out in one shot, or do you come back to it?
ME: For these, they were knocked out in one shot. Pretty much in one sitting. I try to do a series of drawings at one time because it just flows.
In case you haven’t noticed I love prices. And Coke pops up in my work a lot.
EC: Why do you think that is?
ME: It’s what they’ve been to culture. The things that I address, for instance, civil rights themes. All these major conflicts in our history, Coca Cola has been in the background.
EC: At the end of Mad Men, they show that iconic Coke commercial from 1970. People of all different nationalities and races standing together on a hill and singing about Coke. “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” It’s so ironic to me that people would fall for that. Here are these people brought together by soda, while civil rights is happening and Vietnam rage on.
ME: Coke never did shit when people were getting beat up at the lunch counters. There were Coca Cola signs everywhere, but they never stepped in. They kept making money. This is a Jeff Koons.
EC: What’s your opinion on that man?
ME: [laughs] Very shaky ground.
EC: I think he’s full of shit. I don’t understand why he’s famous. Why people like him. Why people spend millions of dollars on his work.
ME: Especially since he doesn’t touch anything anymore. He doesn’t touch the work. What the hell? Come on now. That’s why I made this. It’s a joke. But let’s find the big one I want to show you. One of most frequent things I hear is “Basquiat Basquiat,” so one day I was like, “Ya’ll motherfuckers have to realize I’m doing my own shit.” So this is my response to that. This is Basquiat passing me the torch.
EC: I love it. I love the idea behind it and the motivation. I feel like if you were a white woman painting like this, people wouldn’t compare you to him. They just want to put people in one group because categories make people comfortable.
ME: You just said a lot.
EC: Deny him. Defi him. When did you make this one?
ME: I made this in January of this year, right after my show.
We head downstairs.
ME: So this is what I’m working on at the moment, I’m making a couple flags. A confederate flag is next. A performance goes with it before I can finalize it.
EC: What is that gonna be like?
ME: It’s gonna be intense, something that people don’t want to dive into. It’ll be brutal. I just want to act on current situations in America as far as police matters, and put myself on the line on this flag during the performance, trying to make it pretty soon. I’ll keep you posted.
EC: Have you ever done performance based stuff before?
Yes. This trumpet was from my first performance in Nashville. You know Morgan Higby Flowers. He had this thing called No Media last year. All these performances in this basement and nobody could use a phone…
EC: That was at my house. You were there? I remember you! I’m so blown away right now. In the basement on Hamilton Avenue. I was using a cowbell or something and I had my fox ears on. You were there with a girl, right?
ME: That was Sophia. Damn! That’s crazy.
EC: Right! So you liked it?
ME: I loved it! The idea of no media is almost foreign at this point in time. It was refreshing to go back to that. It doesn’t have to be Instagrammed. It doesn’t have to be Facebooked. It was an exclusive thing for the people that were there who got to be a part of it. That was really cool. My mind is blown.
Ok so here’s my primitive dog again.. And this is my version of Mary. This is from my vampire period. Ha. Every figure that I made had these sharp vampire teeth. It was kind of reflecting the monstrosity of how vicious people can be deep down inside. Even Mary.
EC: This one I know you didn’t do in one sitting.
ME: No. A little bit longer.
EC: Tell me about this one.
ME: Yep. It’s called “A la Carte.” It’s basically addressing lunch counter sit ins. There’s another piece to this that involves a performance. That’s coming up soon. Basically three figures, one is washed out in the middle. They’re sitting at the lunch counter. They’re turned around looking directly back at us before stuff gets dumped on their heads, they get called this and that. Once again, even that was on camera and that’s what the “Say Cheese” is all about.
EC: What artists do you like? Who do you get obsessed with?
ME: I really love Warhol. Hmm. Frida Khalo. I really love her. I love looking at pictures of her. She survived so much pain. I couldn’t imagine. She let that pain out on the canvas. I stay away from looking at artists too much. I don’t want to be too influenced. The 30 Americans show was awesome.
ME: So, this is 32 Batman buildings. I get so tired of seeing the Batman building in art around here–”
EC: Me too!
ME: I just can’t stand it anymore!
EC: That and Willie Nelson.
ME: Batman building! Batman building! Damn.
ME: This is a new thing I’m doing called “Blam.” It’s kind of going off Black Lives Matter but it’s Black Lives Always Matter. I really like when they’d use that in the old Batman shows.
EC: Have you been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in Nashville?
ME: A little. I was really into the Occupy movement. I recently talked to Martha Rosler. I was asking her about how these movements seem so microwaved. You don’t even hear about Occupy anymore.
EC: I think it kind of combusted on itself with leadership issues.
ME: Black Lives has already gone down, too, as far as always hearing it and seeing it. I start asking myself, What is it? Are these things just to sell T-shirts or are we trying to really go through with it? I asked Rosler about the difference between activism when she was really active in the 60s and 70s, and now. She was like, really it’s about the footwork. A lot of people aren’t doing the footwork.
By Marlos E’van.
ME: With this I broke down the word “father” and switched it around dealing with my own experiences. It’s interesting because when I was a kid, nobody knows this, he busted in my room by kicking the door in and was like, “Move all the furniture out. Paint this bedroom right now. If you spill a fucking drop I’m gonna kill you. I’m gonna blow your fucking brains out.” I was like twelve. It was crazy. It’s so weird because I hated painting at the moment under those conditions.
That’s always been an issue too in my work: black fathers and their roles.
EC: This is all really recent?
ME: Yes. I did this two weeks ago. Just woke up one morning and got to it.
EC: Do you find that you work well in the morning, or is it different for you depending on the day?
ME: It really depends on the day. I just do whatever, whenever I feel like it as far as this goes. When I feel it, I do it. When you get in the groove, you’re in the groove. People ask me, “Why do you do what you do?” It’s just cause I want to and it feels good and it’s fun.
EC: Did you see that show at David Lusk by Tyler Hildebrand?
ME: Have heard the name but no.
EC: He’s white, and I feel like his depictions of black subjects are very stereotypical and racist: big hair, big lips, looking like they don’t have a clue. To be fair, all of his subjects are down and out, but something about it seems entitled to me. I looked at his work for so long and tried to connect with it, but I just couldn’t. In general, I find it really hard to admire white artists who use black people as their subjects.
ME: Yeah. It’s also the delivery of it. Some people want to do it but don’t know how to deliver it. There’s a lot of gimmicks out there, too. That type you were saying, how many people have I seen like that: white guy or white chick, but you see the subjects in the paintings are black and it’s like, Damn, wait a minute, who did this?
EC: Or the photography.
ME: Oh my God. That’s just like looking at a petri dish under a microscope. Like people are zoo animals. You might hear a photographer who does it say, “I was done with the subjects when it was over. I don’t know what happened to them.” They just didn’t fucking matter to you. You just want the picture.