DUBLIN — Phillip Allen is an English abstract painter in his mid-forties, whose interest in the material possibilities of his medium — ranging from felt tip pens to oil paint and enamel — informs nearly everything else. He would finish a felt tip pen drawing in one sitting, and then, using the drawing as a starting point, labor over an oil painting on board for many months. Since at least 2003, when he had an exhibition of Recent Paintings at PS1, his signature gesture has been to bracket his canvases across the top and bottom edges with large gobs of paint. Formally, the bracketing is a way of framing the image, which Allen does with a line in his felt tip pen drawings. It also makes the painting’s surface protrude into the viewer’s physical space.
In a 2010 interview with Alli Sharma, Allen stated: “Other things happen, slight variations, but I need the drawing in front of me.” His use of a drawing as a starting point in his paintings is worth noting since a felt tip pen, which cannot be erased or revised, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from oil paint, which can be scraped away or endlessly altered.
In his bracketing, Allen twirls some gobs of paint like cake frosting, while others are pressed down like clots of dirty gum. The sudden shift between graphic image and waste-like matter is extreme and unapologetic, a statement of the struggle between the visual and the visceral, the clean and dirty, with neither dominating the other. It is daring and quirky and — like many signature gestures — something that could easily devolve into a trademark mannerism. In Allen’s work, this hasn’t proven the case for a number of reasons, as the reader shall soon learn.
In the bracketed paintings, Allen is interested in the conversation he could establish between an impasto surface and pictorial depth. However at odds they might be with each other, he wants both possibilities in his work, rather than one or the other. There is something willful about making wads of paint project from the surface, like weird decorative elements.
It is as if Allen has lifted them from the studio floor of Leon Kossoff or Frank Auerbach and stuck them — like wads of tar — onto an abstract painting, whose graphic imagery of symmetrical patterns evokes the symphonic abstractions of Frantisek Kupka and the Surrealist landscapes of Paul Nash. In his current show at Kerlin, the allusions were to the circular forms of Robert Delaunay and the dancers of Gino Severini. In both bodies of work, Allen is deliberately colliding diverse aspects of early modernism together.
At the same time, Allen seems to want to embrace the work of certain talismanic figures without resorting to satire or parody. In this, I am reminded of Chris Martin in the 1980s and ‘90s, deliberately and unabashedly working his way through motifs we associate with Paul Feeley and Philip Guston until they became his own. For this viewer, at least, Allen’s deliberateness is neither charming nor stylish, neither pretentious nor sarcastic, which makes it all the more winning.
I am not sure what could have prepared me for the changes Allen made to his recent paintings, which are being shown under the collective title, oxblood, at Kerlin Gallery (June 6–July 20, 2013). Although I have been unable to follow this artist’s work as closely as I would like, it seemed to me that the recent paintings required a rigorous rethinking of paint’s materiality, which enabled the artist to transform it from clumps of muddy earth to misty, dripping fields. And yet, for all the radical changes that Allen has made to his practice, his long preoccupation with paint as matter has become increasingly evident. To paraphrase the poet Charles Olson, people don’t change, “they only stand more/revealed.”
In size the paintings range from around 8 x 11 inches to 10 x 7 feet. It’s conceivable that the small ones might function as starting points for the large ones, as the felt tip pen drawings did in his earlier work. The larger paintings tend to be more difficult to read than their modestly scaled counterparts, the forms hidden by a misty surface of dripping paint. The work can be divided into three groups, with the majority of them populated by rounded, incomplete forms jostling together within a shallow space. Two paintings — one small and one large — are related landscapes, and two others (also one large and one small) have trapezoids tilting back into space.
In the rest, it’s as if some kind of slippage has taken place because the split forms on either side of a central, vertical bifurcation don’t quite line up. At the same time — and this is what distinguishes Allen’s recent works from their forbears — attenuated rivulets of silvery enamel paint cover the surface of these canvases, embedding the dark red, brown and violet forms behind a veil of dripping mist. It’s as if the forms are dissolving back into paint, liquid or waste.
The use of enamel conveys Allen’s refusal to be medium specific and make a fetish out of oil paint, as did earlier generations of English painters. One senses that he wants to find his own way, and that he has chosen a path that is not driven by marketplace factors, such as stylistic consistency. One of my favorite titles – provocative, sly and smart — is “I blame it on Kosuth” (2012). What exactly is Joseph Kosuth, the American conceptual artist, being blamed for? And seriously, who else is to blame?
In the large “Blue Stain (Cinderella’s Slipper Version)” (2012), Allen depicts an abstract landscape that is dark green along the bottom edge (a low horizon line), shifting to a vertically ascending expanse of blue. Gobs of yellow-orange paint have been affixed to the surface. One could read these gobs as literal, metaphorical, formal or — more usefully — all three. Looking as if they have been excreted from the blue field as part of the distilling process, they seem to signal that an engagement with early modernism and any other source produces waste, in addition to useful matter.
Allen doesn’t define his commitment through style but through an exploration of materiality. This is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries. The misty veil of silver paint pulls our attention to the surface, even as we stand back and try to discern the different rounded forms, mentally extricate them from the innumerable rivulets. Dissolution is a central feature to all of the work, the sense that entropy is unavoidable. Looking becomes a struggle to ascertain forms, to penetrate veils, to differentiate between surface and depth, as well as recognize their interaction. Allen’s forms reveal themselves slowly, but never completely. Some part of them will always be embedded within the paint.
Moving from his earlier gobs to his recent rivulets, Allen seems to be demanding that his paintings, in order to be true to our material condition, must recognize its own waste as both an inevitable byproduct of its creation and a constituent element of its existence. In doing so, Allen defines a studio practice that embraces the past while acknowledging the inescapable future.
Phillip Allen: oxblood is on view at Kerlin Gallery (Anne’s Lane, South Anne Street, Dublin) through July 20.