Museum Curators Take Dennis Evans Seriously Even If Seattle Neighbors Think He's All Wet
07/16/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
Even serious joggers break stride and gawk across the Seattle marsh. There, incongruously attired in dress tails and hip boots, Dennis Evans wades through the murky water. Randomly (or so it seems, anyway), he thrusts white sticks into the muddy bottom and launches floating porcelain bowls from the amphibious sled trailing behind him. This is the start of what the 32-year-old Seattle artist calls a "sounding event." "At worst, it's Groucho Marx; at best, it's too profound," he says of his work. "That is a real delicate place—somewhere between absurdity and irony and profundity."
The lay public may regard it all uneasily as a giant put-on. But the diagrams ("they're like librettos") for Evans' happenings sell for $700, and the visual residues—black lacquered boxes filled with bowls, porcelain wands and stones—command up to $2,500. They are also exhibited publicly, most recently at the prestigious Biennial of Manhattan's Whitney Museum.
Wildlife preserves, tropical forests and coastal beaches are the canvases for Evans' ceremonies. When staging an event he assumes an alter ego, Ubu Waugh, a name adapted from the French absurdist play Ubu Roi, which came into his ken seven years ago. "He's creative, but a bit of a rotter," Evans explains about Ubu. "He drinks and is irresponsible about money." Together they have founded the ICEE—the Institute for Conservation of Ephemeral Events. But of course, Evans' performances are one-shots. "A maestro can never repeat his masterpiece," he notes.
Born in Moxee, Wash, and educated in Jesuit schools and at the University of Washington, Evans went into the National Guard in 1971 about the time he began pursuing his loopy muse. While on summer duty he dug a long trench on an enormous barren plain to stage an "earth happening." He now chortles that "the brass got so paranoid that they had helicopters circling and Jeeps trailing me. They thought I was digging graves."
Evans lives with two cats in a sparely furnished bungalow in a bourgeois Seattle neighborhood. Residing nearby is his "true love," fellow artist Nancy Mee, whose work rivals Evans' for bizarreness. She constructs elegant glass-and-copper sculptures often simulating spines twisted by scoliosis (the disorder suffered by the heroine of Looking for Mr. Goodbar). Evans' art is partly subsidized by a faculty position at the local Bush School, but as one student confesses, "Mostly he looks at our work and makes suggestions."
Though not everyone gets the drift, more and more people are taking Evans seriously. The Coast Guard, of course, wishes he wouldn't stage his events during rough weather in Puget Sound. And there is one last unforgiving critic: his dry cleaner. Sighs Evans: "He tears his hair out each time he sees the tails soaked in salt water."