In the Moment, Triptych, each panel 150cm x 150cm
Mission Gallery, Swansea; 21st July – 2nd September 2012
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
Too little we see in nature that is ours
Nature Illuminated offers visitors to the Mission Gallery a timely opportunity to see new paintings by Katie Allen. In so many complex ways her work embodies in equal measure both the practical challenges of painting and the most timeless and intractable philosophy, although this does not make her work in any way ‘difficult’ to appreciate. There is a considerable confidence that makes these paintings immensely seductive and appealing. They are unashamedly beautiful to look at, and a sustained inspection allows for that greater enjoyment in which the visual unfolds hand-in-hand with an increasing awareness of the questions the work poses: ideas that it, both metaphorically and literally, illuminates.
From the perspective of art history, Allen’s work offers, to my mind, a most striking example of decorative magic realism, a type of painting in which ‘objects are depicted with a precise naturalism, but which because of paradoxical elements or strange juxtapositions convey a feeling of unreality, infusing the ordinary with a sense of mystery’. 1 Equally, her paintings take forward the older idea of the romantic sublime: the pursuit of beauty in landscape to such a degree that it almost, but not quite, tips over into the mystical. Additionally, there are other intriguing complexities: a particular stylization of motifs and meticulous handling of paint, a certain psychedelic pop, the ‘modern’ lack of framing, the unashamedly decorative nature of the work, all of which allow for postmodern interpretations. What is important here is the partial and overlapping adherence to the above that gives the work a special intricacy. Allen remains exemplary as an artist who does things in the right order. She has carefully worked out a solution to the time-space equation that the studio presents, developed a unique style and identity in the work and then, crucially, chosen a subject that can be grasped universally whilst at the same time be open to multiple historical and philosophical apprehensions.
Taking the first of these prisms (a most suitable adjective for this exhibition) through which Allen’s work can be understood, it might just be the case that Allen is not a magical realist after all, given the distance between these paintings and the roots of the term. 2 Comparing her with the likes of Georg Schrimpf (1889-1938) or Wilhelm Heise (1892-1955), all now lost to history, is fruitless, suffice to say that given the lack of the overtly fantastical in Allen’s work, she reflects Franz Roh’s original intention for the term that it describe a representation ‘of the mundane in such a way as to bring out its magical qualities’, and that it might involve ‘a use of miniature details even in expansive paintings, such as large landscapes.’ 3 Of this group, only Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) is significant, with respect to his frontal treatment of trees, plants and foliage, and it is through him that we can perhaps ascribe a surreal root to Allen’s work. After the war magic realism never regained its significance, either as a style – or even idea – in painting, although echoes of it hung on in many parts of the popular culture. The rise of an altogether more theoretical magic realism in literature, and the confusions for painting this presented, along with the orthodoxies imposed by the political managerialisation of knowledge in the sphere of contemporary art since the 1960s, has resulted, paradoxically, in it being largely ignored by the fashionable (the painter Peter Doig is a contemporary exception), and is instead claimed today for, and on behalf of, outsider artists. 4 Far from being a negative, this discontinuity gives Allen a less than straightforward relationship to conventional art history. This adds to rather than detracts from her work.
A second prism through which to consider these paintings is that of ornament and decoration. The fine balance of abstract and figurative required by her particular stylisations is significant, in so far as the balance holds both simultaneously in check. 5 Whilst the new paintings in Nature Illuminated might have a more strident use of colour, for me they remain figurative and, to a large extent, a Modernist painting endgame is beside the point for Allen. The decorative is key, and it would be interesting to ‘read’ her work through the history of decorative style rather than that of fine art. I am not best placed to do this, although the Art Deco of Mucha, Rennie Mackintosh, Tiffany, and Lalique would certainly factor. The question arises specifically out of her adherence to a total style for the work, and can be traced as much to Art Deco’s Symbolist antecedents and further back to the Pre-Raphaelites via a European Japonisme.
The lack of direct human presence and activity in all its messy complexity is puzzling in Allen’s work. The perfectly manicured vistas do indeed bear the partial hallmarks of the magical realist and the symbolist, but the lack of the human, to a certain extent negates these classifications. The excess of the decorative may make the paintings appeal more to the senses than the intellect. Some may interpret this as a weakness. Whilst they have the feel of sets or backdrops with something that is missing or elsewhere, this only serves to heighten their dreamlike qualities and draw your attention to what they actually are: landscapes with human presence implied. Parkmill and Somewhere in Between have paths into the picture along which we might progress. We are reminded of life’s mortal coil being irreconcilably set within a landscape regardless of the degrees of its fiction. Interestingly, Parkmill has both a light and dark side of the road.
There is a logic to Allen’s work in that it ‘appears to contain no moral thus demonstrating a very modern indecision in which we all have a stake, between a landscape engineered in the mind, and one engineered in practical reality.’ 6 Although this suggests she is utopian with regard to the future of our shared natural environment, the new works in Nature Illuminated reconfirm for us the timeless incidence of art and the natural environment and our power to direct the latter. They confirm Schopenhauer’s belief that what distinguished aesthetic experiences from others is that the contemplation of the object of aesthetic appreciation temporarily allows the subject a respite from the strife of desire, and allows entry to a realm of purely mental enjoyment, the world purely as representation or mental image. For Schopenhauer, the more a person’s mind is concerned with the world as representation, the less it feels the suffering of the world as will. Standing before a Katie Allen painting allows this, even though we know, contradictorily, in our heart of hearts that, as Turgenev said, ‘nature cares nothing for our human logic; she has her own, which we do not acknowledge until we are crushed under her wheel.’ 7
1. Chilvers, Ian (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, Oxford University Press. 1990.
2. Magic(al) Realism. Term coined by the German critic Franz Roh (1890-1965) in 1925 to describe the aspect of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) characterised by sharp-focus detail. The term first found usage in describing aspects of the exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) curated by Gustav Friedrich Hartlub at Kunstalle Mannheim in 1923.
3. Roh, Franz, Nach-Expressionismus. Magischer Realismus. Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (After Expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the Newest European Painting), Klinkhardt & Biermann, Leipzig. 1925.
4. Good examples of such artists might be Rob Gonsalves or Patricia Van Lubeck.
5. Matthew Guy Nichols, writing recently about the paintings of Beatriz Milhazes, whose abstractions are worth looking at alongside Allen’s paintings, maintained that ‘when the American critic Clement Greenberg dismissed decoration as ‘the spectre that haunts modernist painting’, he tacitly acknowledged its formal resemblance to the non-objective canvases he championed. Indeed, Greenberg’s psychically freighted language posited decoration as the id to modernism’s ego, always lurking in abstraction’s shadow threatening to assert itself.’ See Nichols, Matthew Guy, “Beatriz Milhazes at James Cohan Gallery, New York,” Art in America, March 2005.
6. Pleass, Anders, ‘Katie Allen’ in We Have The Mirrors, We Have The Plans / Gennym Ni Mae’r Drychau, Gennym Ni Mae’r Cynlluniau, Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno. 2010.
7. Ivan Turgenev (1818-1833) quoted in A. C. Grayling, The Mystery of Things, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London. 2004.