Richard Telles Fine Art | Los Angeles
October 30 – November 27, 2010
Originally published in ArtUS 31
In “Summerlands,” Tom Allen’s fifth solo exhibition at Richard Telles, the bruised cherubs, lurid flowers and graveyards of his earlier paintings were supplanted by more subtle, but no less Romantic subjects: a gloomy landscape illuminated by candlelight, birds receding through stormy clouds, an ecstatically beautiful abalone shell against a red sky, and, in the title series, four small oils of isolated, gnarled trees that Allen brought to the exact brink of anthropomorphism, suggesting entrapped, petrified souls.
Is anything less contemporary than the concept of souls? It’s hard to imagine an artist today referring to the old-fashioned soul without a thick gloss of irony. But Allen, on closer inspection, is not dealing in irony. His paintings are rendered with too much straightforward conviction and precision to be essentially ironic, and they project urgency—in part because the version of reality they reflect is pointed and intense. The tree roots in “Landscape with Two Candles” (2010), for example, are painted in such hyper-focused style that they resemble whips, in a painfully crisp image that recalls Rilke’s description, in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, of his “Fear that a small woolen thread sticking out of the seam of my blanket may be hard–hard and sharp like a needle.” Also, as in “Polished Shell” (2009), Allen’s paintings sometimes lunge at beauty the way their Romantic predecessors would, with abandon. The painted candlelight in “Two Candles,” licks of bright orange striping the tree stumps, is another example of this—a visual high point of the exhibition, an unassuming, surprising flourish that helps this painting outshine the twisted-tree portraits, for all their technical ability.
What makes Allen’s paintings peculiar, even while boundary-hopping and cross-referencing characterize a fair amount of today’s art, is that they don’t just appropriate Romantic imagery; they cloak themselves in that era’s attitude. The paintings’ relationship to this attitude is interesting. You can imagine various stances for a present-day artist to take toward the Romantic mindset, from critical to reverent, offhandedly curious to intensely academic, and, perhaps most likely of all, clinical—but Allen’s approach doesn’t fit any of these. It’s not that his adoption of the Romantic mood is unselfconscious, but the paintings, rather freshly, do without an overt meta-layer that rushes to account for their anachronistic subject matter. Their yearning for a time when art reached unabashedly for sublime experience is only half in quotation marks. In a way, they mourn a defunct way of seeing as someone would mourn (to use a Romantic term) a departed soul. It’s fitting that “Summerlands” takes its title from a largely forgotten theory—a concept of afterlife invented by a nineteenth-century spiritualist, Andrew Jackson Davis, who imagined souls of the dead absorbed into a celestial band of “solid, spiritualized matter.” In an artist’s statement, Allen points out that this idea seemed both to suit his portraits of formerly living trees and to describe the simultaneously material and ethereal space of painting–but it’s also a functioning metaphor for the afterlife that ideas can find in art.
Inescapably, the word “Summerlands” also conjures Southern California (Allen lives here), itself a kind of utopian—or dystopian, take your pick—afterlife in the popular mind. But in the end, Allen’s paintings may engage L.A.—and even Romanticism, their apparent central subject—only incidentally. The nature of the conceptual overlays through which different people at different times view the world, and the prospect of examining, perhaps reanimating, these overlays through art, seems at the real core of his project. “Landscape with Two Candles” could be Allen’s metaphor for the past: felled but not totally dark, twining its undead roots into the present.