Cecilia Charlton & Charlotte Evans: Myths & Annunciations

Candida Stevens Gallery is pleased to present Myths & Annunciations, an exhibition exploring the ways in which two artists working in very different styles have been inspired by the same period of art history. Cecilia Charlton is an American-born textile artist living in the UK, who uses bargello embroidery to create striking compositions that channel energy and narrative through geometric form. Charlotte Evans is a British-born painter living in Canada, whose figurative oil paintings blend art historical and autobiographical references to produce scenes layered with allegory and intrigue. Ostensibly, these artists are nothing alike, working in different styles and mediums. And yet, they have something in common. From illuminated manuscripts and painted altarpieces to classicism and architecture, both Charlton and Evans cite their use of pattern and colour as being heavily influenced by the same period of art history - the Italian Renaissance.


For Cecilia Charlton it was a well-timed trip in 2016 to Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance, that set her on the path to bargello embroidery. Visiting the Battistero di San Giovanni, she found herself captivated by the thirteenth century mosaic ‘carpets’ covering its floor. As a student struggling to find a connection with paint, her chosen medium at the time, these complex geometric arrangements of red, white and black marble stopped Charlton in her tracks. Why had they been made? How had they been devised? How did it feel to create them? Back in London not long after, a book about bargello embroidery caught her eye. Realising that it was textiles to which she really felt a kinship (her mother was a seamstress and grandmother studied textiles), Charlton had discovered the perfect medium to begin her journey in pattern.


Characterised by its vertical stitches woven in repeating, mathematical patterns, Charlton describes working with bargello as a collaboration between artist and material. Typically created using wool yarn on canvas, the artist stretches her embroidery over painted panels. Layering materials, patterns and colours in this way, she creates a dynamic surface that draws the viewer in. In Charlton’s latest series of Psychic Portals we see the way this rewards those who allow themselves to become immersed in her work. Drawing on a series of tantric paintings from Rajasthan, they encourage the viewer to focus on the image for a sustained period, allowing the visual to fill one’s mind and empty it of other thoughts. In this sense, we see how geometric forms can offer far more than mere decoration and that, for the artist, they provide a pathway for powerful communication.


In 2021, when Charlton was a winner of the Jerwood Art Fund Makers Open in recognition of her ambition and innovation in textiles, the artist was determined to demonstrate the narrative potential of bargello embroidery. Eternal myth and the poetry of the cosmos (fate, future, suture), 2022, does just that. Inspired by the ancient Greek myth of the Three Fates, this monumental triptych considers the parallels between the mythological sisters who spin, allot and cut the thread of life and the artist’s own identity as one of three sisters herself. Reminiscent of Renaissance altarpieces in which figures were often delineated either physically as single panels joined together or by painted architectural forms, in Charlton’s work the three panels are separated by colour and unified by pattern. Each defined by a distinct colour palette chosen to represent birth (pastel pink), life (vibrant green) and death (fading blue), the panels are connected by a continuous outer border and central motif that radiates across all three. Vines grow upwards on the left, bursts of energy pulsate in the middle and the ripples of time flow down on the right such that, in this remarkable work, Charlton manages to transform allegory into abstraction, channelling the energy and character of each sister through pattern and colour alone.


From Byzantine icons to the height of the Renaissance, the use of pattern and colour in the representation of identity is a long-held concept in art history and one that Charlotte Evans uses throughout her work. From geometric patterns to symbolic flowers and fruits, she frequently relies on costume as a means through which something of the essence of her mysterious figures can be understood. In her enigmatic new work, Reach Out, for example, each figure is brought to life through dress. At the centre, a seemingly medieval outfit is transformed through bold colour-blocking to create an otherworldly feel to the subject. To the right, a figure seems to stand guard as they look directly at the viewer, cloaked in long green robes. To the left, a figure is turned away from both viewer and painting but, with hand outstretched, the bright yellow fabric covered in dandelions seems to encourage us to take their hand and follow them. 


Reach Out is, in fact, a fascinating take on Giotto’s Annunciation to St Anne (c1303-5). Depicting the moment that St Anne receives word she will become a mother, in this early Renaissance fresco, three figures converge from different spaces - a servant just outside an arched doorway, St Anne kneeling beneath a timber-framed ceiling, and an angel crossing the threshold from heaven to earth through an open window. In Evans’ recreation, however, there is a purposeful disconnect between the three figures who all seem to be heading away from view in different directions, as if the room is a set on a stage that will soon be empty of its characters. 


In Wings, the same room is filled again, this time with three small birds who appear suspended in mid-flight, their direction of travel left uncertain. With hands extending into the painting, we are left wondering if the birds have just been released into the painting or whether they have flown in through the open window and are being rescued from the confines of the room. The scene is reminiscent of Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his Study (c1475), in which two birds sit on a ledge in the foreground, at the threshold of the painting, such that their place of belonging - the real world or within the painting - is left for the viewer to decide.


The element of spectatorship has long been an interest of Evans, who has previously described her compositions as theatrical sets through which her subjects emerge and disappear. In her latest series of work, the artist has drawn inspiration from the Renaissance technique of using archways to delineate space and create a sense of interior and exterior in her compositions. In Wayfarers, for example, an arch framed by leaves provides the window through which we view the landscape and figures beyond. And in Pebbles, a work that draws on the mythological figure of Narcissus, the figure's sense of self-absorption and isolation is amplified by his placement inside a stoney grotto, his back turned to the beauty of the world beyond the arches.


Bringing together new and recent works, Myths & Annunciations demonstrates the different ways in which the Renaissance has influenced both Charlton and Evans, transcending genre and medium to create a series of works that hang in playful conversation with each other. Together, they prove the power of pattern and colour to communicate narrative and emotion, regardless of style or form.


Essay by Isabella Joughin