John Hurrell – 10 July, 2012
The trouble is Allen's painted images look too much like Colin McCahon meets Nigel Brown. Such manuality - overt mark making - is not normally associated with Allen, though he has shown the occasional drawing or photo-enlarged collage. Any confusion the viewer might feel in this Lett show - especially if they are familiar with Allen's very best works, is multiplied if they see the other 1998 painting (The First Three). Allen has no unified stylistic voice as a painter and it is a mistake to show these works.
The Skin of Years
28 June - 4 August 2012
Jim Allen is a revered seminal figure in Australasia because of his bold introduction and nurturing - during the seventies - of installation and performance art at Elam. At Michael Lett this artist/teacher (at the age of ninety - hence the great title) is currently presenting a mixture of sculpture, film stills and (surprisingly) painting: some that is recent, or from 1998 - and one work remade from 1970.
The oldest piece, the sculpture Arena (1970) seems particularly apt today as a protest against oppression and internment of political prisoners. It is based on a cross system of metal supports lying on the floor, from which spring three groups of vertical struts. Between these are strung strands of tight barbed wire that make up three concentric enclosing rectangles of different heights. Over the lowest innermost one is placed clothing donated by family and friends that neutralises the razor sharp spikes.
However Arena is more nuanced than what it first seems, being not so much about fascistic brutality as communities of love and support that provide comfort, moral strength and loyalty to counter it. It speaks of bodily containment accompanied by soaring mental freedom.
The second part of this show presents a recent sculpture, and pairs of photos and paintings that have strong symbolic connections with the work included in Natasha Conland’s AAG Made Active exhibition, namely Hanging by a Thread II (2009) with its related photographs (like bandaged trees) and objects on stands.
The sculpture (Rio) shows a porcelain marionette held high off the ground with one leg caught in a vicelike clamp, her exuberant golden outer garments scattered rumpled on the ground and encircling on four stands, blue images of orifices from a giant head (mouth, eye, ear, nose), coolly observing. Symbols of a gloating media perhaps.
This work and the three nearby wall pieces (arranged configurations of paintings, photographs, diagram and rubbings) seems to comment on the role of the individual versus that of the wider community or nourishing state. There are lots of trees with leafless branches that could also be sucking roots.
Of the wall clusters that use 2-4 images, the solarised documentation photographs with polemical diagram work best. Allen is not a natural painter (he lacks a developed ‘language’) so his images of collective trees look like a clumsy hybrid of Leger with Kostabi. It is not that they are technically inept. It’s just that they are eclectic and aesthetically clumsy.
The third part of his show accentuates this point: On Reading Redemption Songs is a suite of eight paintings made in 1998, inspired by Judith Binney’s wonderfully detailed, incredibly researched book about Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, legendary guerilla leader and founder of the Ringatu religion.
Many artists in Aotearoa have been sufficiently excited by the Te Kooti saga that they have made work alluding to his life or his spiritual cosmology/symbolism. The list includes Laurence Aberhart, Paratene Matchitt, Leigh Davis, Colin McCahon and Shane Cotton.
The trouble is Allen’s painted images look too much like Colin McCahon meets Nigel Brown. Such manuality - overt mark making - is not normally associated with Allen, though he has shown the occasional drawing or photo-enlarged collage. Any confusion the viewer might feel in this Lett show - especially if they are familiar with what I think are Allen’s very best works, O-AR Part 1 (1975, 2007), Poetry for Chainsaws (1976, 2006, 2007) and Small Worlds (1969-70, 2010) - is multiplied if they see the other 1998 painting (The First Three). That is like some elements of the recent wall works, which as I’ve said, look like Kostabi / Leger hybrids. Allen has no unified stylistic voice as a painter and his take on Te Kooti here is not sufficiently unusual to be of interest. It is a mistake to show these paintings, though thematically they fit in with the rest of the show.
Therefore it is the two free standing sculptures that are the engrossing pieces in this exhibition, though Rio, compared to the larger Arena, is a little twee. There is also one solarised photographic work that extends Hanging by a Thread II by incorporating a societal/symbolic hand diagram borrowed from activist artist Conrad Atkinson. It is the best of the wall works because it has no painting. Well worth a visit to Arch Hill for these three.
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