Phillip Allen’s paintings expose the viewer to the challenges of readability and contradiction in their examinations of possibility and limitation.
The paintings are composed of abstract forms that seem to question their own intent through their suggestions of strange figurations within landscapes. The dense, solid materiality of the work is in opposition to the layers of thinly applied colour that occupies the centre ground of the rendered and re-rendered surface.
In an appraisal of the effectualness of linguistics and of different painting styles to communicate, Allen synthesizes letters, patterns and shapes to form an invented pictorial syntax, creating a new imaginary language. Biographical and art historical references are tangled into this made-up vernacular. In ‘WXY’ and ‘ONM’ a figurative element is introduced through the allusion to the male and female nude. The alphabet letters are organized in an ornamental systemization, so that letters and images are no longer experienced as conflicting opposites. All of Allen’s compositions warn the viewer against overly literal readings and of the shortcomings of language and painting. Content and matter are at a constant interplay in these paintings, so that their imagery is not to be trusted to decode into a clear reading. Instead, the complete effect is offered up only through the paint itself. Often in Allen’s paintings, symbols and gestures of the same ‘family’ reappear titled under the same invented ‘clan’ denominations and in different ‘versions’, proclaiming their tentativeness again and again.
The thick bands of paint on the top and bottom of the boards do not offer themselves up for any kind of pictorial recognition. Instead, they work with the formal aspects of colour, mark and density to communicate at a more rudimentary level. In its physicality, the raw paint is also like matter waiting to be activated by the artist’s brush or the viewer’s imagination– suggesting the incalculable illusionary possibilities it inherently contains. Some of these are played out on the surface, only to be dispelled by the reminder of the concrete source of the illusion, and in this way, the thick borders of paint contain the paintings conceptually as well as physically.
The separation between materiality and illusion is ever more evident in Allen’s ‘Pareidolia’ collage/reliefs, where the painted illusions are replaced by the printed image. The term ‘pareidolia’ describes the psychological delusion of perceiving vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) as significant. Common examples include perceiving images of animals in clouds, the ‘Face on Mars’, the man in the moon and various religious projections, as well as ‘hidden messages’ heard on records played in reverse. Through the composition of these works, elements depicted in the collaged images are broken down into simpler denominations and new associations are drawn between the source image and the paint. The clots of paint playfully mimic the texture, palette or material depicted in the images. The tensions present in the idea of representation through painting are played out on the board, yet the signified and the signifier never resolve themselves; is the image representing the paint, or is the paint representing the image? They could both just as easily transform themselves into each other. The pools of oil emanating from the thick impasto remind the viewer of the limitations of the medium’s power for illusion and representation of the real, but the crinkled dot-printed colour reproductions remind us of this same fact, and they refer to each other as testaments of their own failures.
Phillip Allen was born in London in 1967. This is his third solo show at The Approach. Other recent solo exhibitions include: Xavier Hufkens, Brussels (2007); Milton Keynes Gallery (2006); Kerlin Gallery, Dublin (2005); P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2003). Selected group exhibitions include: ‘Archpeinture: painters build architecture’, Camden Arts Centre, London and Le Plateau/ FRAC Ile-de-France, Paris (2006); ‘The British Art Show 6’, BALTIC Gateshead & touring.
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