Never underestimate what the humble piece of paper can become when an artist gets hold of it. In Paper: a new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, Annie Kevans shows how it can become the perfect surface for her oil paintings, which may look delicate and minimalist but certainly pack a punch. Look a little closer at the figures in Boys – which formed part of her Central St. Martin’s degree show – and you’ll see that she’s depicted dictators from around the world as they might have looked in childhood, from Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao to Pol Pot. Reduced to pale and timid-looking faces, they’re stripped of their power and become almost anonymous, until you read the titles and realise who you’re looking at. The choice of paper shocked her peers at art school and the subject matter shocked the viewers, and she’s been brilliantly shocking ever since.Never afraid to confront the elephant in the room, Kevans fluidly paints what others only think, but don’t dare to speak up about. Since the unveiling of Boys, she’s compared religious devotion to the belief in aliens (Gods & Aliens, 2004), examined the perception of 1920s film actresses as either angels or whores (Vamps and Innocents, 2007), and even put Nazi collaborators such as Coco Chanel in the spotlight (Collaborators, 2010), with each series meticulously researched before being unleashed on paper. The most controversial was All the Presidents’ Girls (2009-10), looking at women in the lives of US Presidents, and also the illegitimate slave children born from some of these relationships; whilst European historians have always acknowledged the slave children, the American public and US historians have tried to brush the issue under the carpet. Unsurprisingly, her themes develop from burning issues and “things that get on my nerves – I’ve got a list…” She says. “It does mean I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia, though!”Growing up in a family of fearless and high-achieving women, she describes herself as “a natural feminist. It wasn’t even a question for me”. She could take her pick from role models, such as her two great aunts (Eleanor, one of the first female bosses in the UK who worked in the male-dominated gas industry, and Trubody, who was a spy and a member of MI6 with a Bronze Star award for bravery). But, when it came to finding role models in the art world, Kevans wasn’t exactly overloaded with options – something which she believes needs to change.
“When I heard that there were female Impressionist artists, I assumed they weren’t that good, and that’s why they weren’t as well-known. I felt cheated – I hadn’t been taught about them at college, and there were hardly any books about them.” She cites Cecilia Beaux as an example – ” she was one of the top three artists in the US during the 1900s, along with John Singer Sargent”. I then have to admit that, despite being an art graduate, I’ve never heard of Beaux; it definitely feels like there’s only room for a small quotient of women artists on the curriculum and in our galleries when women like Beaux can so easily fall under the radar. As for Kevans herself, she’s been called ‘the next Tracey Emin’ yet, while both women make controversial art and are extremely talented, you could hardly confuse Kevans’ vivid oil portraits with Emin’s verbose blankets and scrawled prints. “My work isn’t like Tracey’s at all,” she says. Perhaps if women artists were less of a novelty then we could compare them more accurately with each other. Luckily, it’s the topic of the paintings she’s currently working on, called History of Art.Aside from planning the next big topics to tackle in her work, Kevans also faces the challenge of changing the medium she works with, as the type of paper she’s been painting on was discontinued in 2005. Having traipsed up and down the country to track down as much of the remainders as possible, she’s now using smaller pads of paper and will eventually run out of her supply, but this has presented her with the opportunity to return to canvas, which she used to work with regularly up until her degree show, and she’ll also look at experimenting with other surfaces. While the move to canvas started as a necessity, she’s confident that it will be a step in the right direction as an artist, allowing her work to evolve. “Artists can get hooked on particular products,” she admits, “but I was always aware that this paper had a limit. I’ll only have ten years of using this paper when I look back at my career aged 80, so it’s forced my reinvention.” It could be argued that Kevans is the one forcing her reinvention – there’s always a new issue to research or a new portrait to paint. She’s reinventing all the time, and I can’t wait to see what she creates next.