Art Papers Magazine, November/December 2000
"Barbara Allen ( Marsha Mateyka Gallery, May 27 - July 1 )"
by Paul Ryan
Barbara Allen is an ecological painter. Like an ecologist in the field of biology who studies the relations of living organisms to one another and their surroundings, Allen carefully considers the relations of the inherent qualities of her medium to the visual and tactile characteristics of the support, ground, the brush, and the multiple influences of the artist's hand. The small things that are often taken for granted by painters-for example, a single stroke's transition from its initial loaded-brush state to when the paint runs out-are, for Allen, part of a deep ecosystem of possibilities, breeding and evolving formalistic problems and aesthetic issues. Through loosely painted grid structures, she deliberately and intuitively explores the literal anatomy of painting at its most fundamental level-an unadorned strategy that whispers the intellectual and aesthetic complexities of the activity of painting.
Understanding the vitalness of her materials as if they are living organisms, Allen demonstrates minimal interference with her medium. She keeps it alive as medium, preventing it from being hampered or overshadowed by something like representational imagery or an emotional flourish of gestural marks. Her manipulations are spare, respectful, trusting, and smart; and, they lead the viewer to quiet realms of content. Allen's practice of painting recognizes the interdependence of paint, surface, tools, and the artist's hand, and she is an equal collaborator with these elements rather than a master over them. She is present in the work, but only as benevolent initiator, partner, and witness.
Like the hieroglyphics of birch bark, a swatch of human skin cells, or the webs of wave tracks in the sand at the shore, Allen's monochromatic structures are simultaneously patterns and not patterns. Although the paintings are not intended to represent particular fragments of Nature, their evolved structures and sense of presence have come into being and exist similarly. They reflect Nature's attitude-its beingness-rather than its specific imagery.
It is significant to note that Allen is also a professional art conservator. To conserve something is to preserve it in its existing state from destruction or change and, in this context, Allen's partiality to straight linear strokes and the grid, as well as her frugal investigations of paint and its means, become clear. Because of her nonobjective vocabulary, interest in materials, and her reductivist approach, it is natural to link Allen's paintings to the formalist theory of late modernist abstraction. Yet, to perceive her work through this lens alone limits, and therefore misrepresents, what the paintings have to offer. Allen's approach and, perhaps, some of her intentions run parallel-even converging at points-with some of the thinking behind Greenberg's concept of self-definition, the guiding principle of advanced painting in the 1950's and '60's, but ultimately they are distinct. This is so because of the ways the paintings connote the outside world, existing as abstractions of Allen's responses to experiences such as "the sound of cicadas an a hot summer evening, the gentle images of the Renaissance artist Sassetta, and the brittle vegetation of a granite ridge in West Virginia". Also, in contrast to the insistent, theory-driven, more masculine tenor expressed in certain strains of late modernist abstraction, Allen's investigations bear a clear feminine tone characterized by a patient though disciplined nurturing, a sense of informality, and a tender, devoted, and flexible eye.
Gently perforating the paintings' formalism and meditative fabric is a conceptualism that centers around the question, "what would happen if..?" In some ways echoing the conceptual drawing strategies from 30 years ago, her approach involves establishing simple and specific tasks/experiments, often repetitive in nature ( e.g. employing only vertical strokes, all of which must run the length of the panel and be created with the same brush, as in Cicada, 1998. Consonant with the paintings' aesthetic emphasis, this conceptual facet of Allen's work is neither intrusive nor veneered over the work's trenchant form-oriented core. It also indicates the generous nature of these paintings, which effortlessly enfold various ideas and responses, and reveal Allen's gift for beholding and manipulating pure form as content.
"A Stroke of Zen: Barbara Allen's Show Weaves a Meditative Blend of Colors"
by Ferdinand Protzman
The Washington Post, June 29, 2000 , p. C5
It there were such a thing as Zen Gregorian chant, Barbara Allen's abstract paintings, with their
simple, disciplined composition, meditative nature and serene, free-flowing rhythms, would be its visual equivalent.
Allen, a Washington-based artist currently showing at Marsah Mateyka Gallery, has been pursuing her unique,
East-meets-West painting groove for quite a while now, and it keeps yielding impressive results.
Most of the work in her previous solo show at the gallery two years ago was strong, but a few of the paintings
seemed tentative and dull. That isn't the case with her latest batch, although she is using the same basic
technique. Allen begins by painting a white ground on a piece of linen or wood. Then she applies subsequent layers
of colors, completing each layer in a single studio session, using just one color and one repeated brush stroke.
The technique is simple and somewhat monotonous, but Allen gets amazing mileage from it. Most of her paintings
are variations on a grid pattern. But by varying the colors and brush strokes used to make the horizontal and
vertical lines, she produces a wide range of effects and creates a lively interplay between the repetitive elements
and the deviations that seem to spring from within the system and take on a life of their own.
The lines in some of the paintings look like the warp and woof of a loosely woven textile. In other
paintings, the lines are tensile, as if they were made of tightly strung, electrically charged wire.
All of her works are full of movement and posses remarkable depth, qualities stemming from the color
contrasts and harmonies withe each piece and the size and speed of Allen's brush strokes. In "August", painted
with oil and silver point on wood, the red yellow and tan tones are sere and sun-baked ,and the broad, languid
brush strokes seem to melt into each other. By contrast, the quick, needle-thin strokes of red and black oil
paint that form "Fountain" are a vigorous study of counterpoint that whooshes past like a gushing stream.
Allen's paintings and their titles aren't airy-fairy, New Age stuff. They were inspired by a variety of
down-to-earth sources, such as the sound of a fountain or the paintings of Sassetta, the brilliant 15th-century
Italian artist. But they are very personal, spiritual and meditative. That isn't very fashionable in art these
days. People either love or hate chants, whether it's the "om" of Zen or the Gregorian "Pater noster". Allen's
gentle, lyrical paintings are likely to evoke a similarly divided response.
NEW PAINTINGS AND WORKS ON PAPER
Marsha Mateyka Gallery
January 9-31, 1997
The Marsha Mateyka Gallery will celebrate the beginning of
the New Year with an exhibition of new paintings and works on paper by
Washington artist, Barbara Allen. This exhibition marks the first solo show at
the gallery, for this talented, abstract painter.
Barbara Allen's paintings are both intuitive and precise--
intuitive in her ability to let the process of painting influence the image; precise
in her understanding of oil paint, mediums and applications. An art conservator
by trade, Ms. Allen has a profound appreciation for the subtleties and intricacies
of layering, transparency, opacity and luminosity possible in oil color. She is
equally fascinated by the infinite variations in brushstroke and incised line and
the sensation of time involved with the intervals of mark making and layering.
Although she considers her paintings non-objective, viewers will note multiple
associations--luminous fields of light, weathered surfaces, veils of color, wave
upon wave of markings on a ground. An individual brushstroke repeated
endlessly becomes a mantra for visual meditation.
This exhibition will continue through January 31. For
additional information and photographs, please contact the gallery.