Leather Etchings Link Primitive to Modern
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
“It’s micro-sculpture within a tenth of a millimeter. I have spent hundreds of thousands of hours slicing, etching, making tiny meticulous marks with scalpels."
The Portuguese gallery, ArtCatto, is showing the work of artist, Mark Evans, who is known for his surgical precision with his unusual medium: leather.
The exposition is at the Conrad Algarve, Quinta do Lago in Almacil (Loule). It is open to the public on weekdays from 10h to 18h, and on Saturdays from 10h to 13h, according to Correio da Manha (August 13). The show runs through September 30.
“Using leather, the artist brings his primitive qualities to the modern age. I’m always amazed when I see his work,” said ArtCatto founder and manager Gillian Catto in Portugal Resident (August 5).
Through the years, Evans has elaborated on his obsession:
“I love leather, the touch, its smell and what it symbolizes,” said Evans, in Correio da Manha.
In designboom (2014), Evans said:
“Leather is ancient, but still remains cool. Leather has heritage, yet it is still rock ‘n’ roll. Leather just gets better with age. Leather is masculine . . . from gladiators to Wild West gunslingers but, also, leather is feminine and sensual.
“I’m drawn into a bakery by the smell of warm bread. Leather is like that. It has its own aroma that appeals to me, kind of like good coffee or grass cuttings. The scent evokes something. Leather was once a living, breathing creature and, in a plastic, synthetic, digital world, leather is authentic. . . . It’s real. It’s skin.”
Born in 1975 on a farmstead near St. Asaph, Evans grew up in the mountains of North Wales. He first began carving images on trees with the penknife his grandfather gave him at age seven, he said in designboom.
In 1995, he studied fine art in London, where a professor told him that “painting is dead”. At the same time, “I couldn’t shake off my childhood primal desire to play with knives.”
Five years later, he happened across his medium:
“I was trying to clean a bloodstain off a new leather jacket I had just been given that Christmas. I scratched through the blood into the surface of the jacket, right into the suede or the nap. That tiny etched patch of contrast in the leather, suddenly, became my own Archimedes eureka moment. I saw a world of possibilities. I locked myself away in a garage for the next few years and focused on developing this new technique. I was living as part artist and part mad-scientist, trying to perfect the process that I'd accidentally discovered. That bloodstained jacket was the spark that led to my first ever leather etching.”
The process is demanding:
“It’s micro-sculpture within a tenth of a millimeter. . . . I have spent hundreds of thousands of hours slicing, etching, making tiny meticulous marks with scalpels. . . . I’m an obsessive perfectionist.”
Even before the knives come out, Evans sources “the right hides” from around the world, according to his website, “but the best hides come from Scandinavia, where the cattle have lush green pasture and no barbed wire fences to hurt the animal or damage the skin.
“From there, my hides all get shipped and tanned in Italy. The Italians are the best tanners in the world.”
Tanning is the process of treating hides of animals to produce leather. Before tanning, the skins are de-haired, degreased, desalted and soaked in water over a period of six hours to two days. Then, they undergo a chemical process which alters their protein structure, making them more durable.
Evans uses aniline leather, which is dyed exclusively with soluble dyes, without producing a uniform topcoat surface, thereby retaining the hide’s surface; and semi-anilene, which is produced through a similar process to aniline leather, but has a thin protective top coat, and full-grain leather, which is just below the hair, and develops a patina over time.
“Each leather hide is handpicked,” said Evans, on his website. “Then, the tanning process is completed by me and my team in the studio. This can take months to get right. The hides are, then, upholstered onto panels and waxed, ready for my knives to come out.”
Evans called his work “brave”:
“So many times, I just sliced right through the leather, ruining it, destroying the hide and the art . . . and my fingers. . . . (My work) is painful and dangerous. It’s nothing like painting, where the artist can just paint over any mistakes. I have nowhere to hide mistakes. Zero margin for error. But I love that, the risk of it, knowing the pressure’s on all the time.”
His influences are his three children,” their passion, wonder and appreciation for beauty; music, such as film scores, hip hop and classical; epic tales in literature, and dozens of artists, including Caravaggio, Damien Hirst and Francis Bacon.
He is unwavering on the role of the artist:
“When a storm strikes a city, the masses all run for cover finding shelter from the savage wind and rain. But the artist is meant to face the storm head-on, climb the church steeple and, there, get struck by lightning . . . and then live the rest of their life as a lightning conductor. . . .
“My favorite British brand is Marmite (a salty yeast extract paste with a rich umami flavor). They don’t care whether people love it or hate it. They are not going to make Marmite light, cherry Marmite or sugar-coated Marmite. Marmite is Marmite.
“I love that confidence in their own flavor. It polarizes opinion. Art should do the same.”
Gillian Cato’s opinion is decidedly on the side of Evans’ art, according to Portugal Resident.
“Throughout my career, I’ve admired many works, but none of them compare,” said Cato, who ran a renowned gallery in London for 30 years before opening the Algarve space 10 years ago. “Mark is an unmatched artist with a unique technique, and the end result of his leather works is absolutely magnificent.”