In a career that has spanned more than three decades, artist Steven Evans has consistently explored the connections between music, language, memory, identity, and collectivity. CAMH’s solo exhibition with the artist – Steven Evans: If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution! – includes two distinct bodies of work the artist has created in colored neon and adhesive vinyl that highlight links between popular music, activism, and social and political change. They demonstrate that the notion of “movement” is multivalent in Evans’s oeuvre; it is simultaneously individual and collective, physical and political. Taken together, the bodies of work on view in this exhibition communicate a sense of collective celebration and spirited resistance.
When Evans arrived in New York, New York in the late 1980s, he became involved in two scenes that fundamentally shaped his artistic practice: activism and dance music. As a member of agit-prop and activist groups like ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Queer Nation, and Visual AIDS, Evans sought to share information to educate and protect the public from the ravages of the AIDS epidemic through various forms of public demonstration. At the same time, Evans was excited by the burgeoning dance music scene, which brought together individuals from diverse backgrounds to commune and celebrate on dance floors.
Evans’s newest work—If I Can’t Dance, It’s Not My Revolution (Stonewall Timeline, 1969–2019) (2019), created for this exhibition—renders 50 song titles in white latex paint and black adhesive vinyl on the lavender-colored walls of CAMH’s Nina and Michael Zilkha Gallery. Taking the 1969 Stonewall Riots as his point of departure, Evans traces a 50-year history, choosing a song title for each year since that draws on the rich connections between popular music and broader demands for progressive socio-politics. Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, 1969’s “Stand!” by Sly and the Family Stone advocates that listeners become agents of social change by recognizing and rejecting class-based and race-based prejudice. The artist and curator Julie Ault notes that “Evans’s works translate personal experience from communal circumstances into a quotidian realm, demonstrating the potency of language.” Later songs—like “I’m Coming Out” (1980) by Diana Ross, “Constant Craving” (1992) by k.d. lang, and “Born This Way” (2011) by Lady Gaga—offer further evidence of the ways that recording artists support progressive sexual politics that directly impact queer people, women, and other marginalized groups. Whether they are encountered on the radio or a dance floor, these songs encourage hope, energy, and perseverance in turbulent times. Click the Spotify link below for a playlist—created by Steven Evans—featuring all fifty of the songs depicted in this work.
A second series of works included in the exhibition are song titles that Evans designs in colored neon to conjure the illumination of bars and dance clubs, as well as the energy that animates them. Evans’s neon work It’s Raining Men (1993–2019) refers to an iconic song that is tied inextricably to the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Evans reflects that, “it’s about easily accessible sex, and the fact that people were dying [of AIDS]. I was looking at neon signs in discotheques and they felt so powerful.” Referencing this notion, Ault shares that “the words transport me to a vast and indeterminate psychic arena where arcs of personal history and collective memory intertwine, embodying bittersweet emotional content.”
Taken together, these two bodies of work communicate a sense of collective celebration and spirited resistance. Whether taking place on the dance floor or in the streets, the notion of “movement” is multivalent in Evans’s hands; it is simultaneously individual and collective, physical and political.