Here Me Now
Monotype, 17.75"x11.5", 1990
© Page Allen
Statement · Bibliography · Essay
© Sharyn Udall, 1990
Page Allen is not the first artist to discover that she can tap into a collective unconscious through the objects scattered about her own mental terrain. The imagery of her paintings, explicit in its graphic firmness, is at the same time strangely hermetic. What is one to make of these horses, handprints, angels, birds, roads - are they quotations from some portentous allegory or an invocation of private ghosts? Allen is a connoisseur of enigmatic conjunctions, fully conscious of her stance at the place where abstraction, figuration and symbolism meet.
Allen has thought hard about her own cultural heritage and about the doubt, self-consciousness, and megalomaniacal narcissism that trivializes much of late twentieth-century painting. She works against that grain, resisting the fashionable and the over-intellectualized in art. It is a conscious rejection, based on a thoughtful and sophisticated approach to painting rare in artists today. Allen has taken deep soundings of past and present, reading widely in poetry, philosophy, and theory. From these disciplines and from the art of the past, she has mined the ideas and metaphors that help her transpose present realities into a higher key.
"I celebrate and eulogize the life I see around me," she writes. "It is passionate work and thus terribly out of fashion. I avoid the knowledgeable, impersonal look, and can thus appear naive." Any semblance of naiveté in Allen's work is due in part to her use of familiar animals and objects in her paintings. But for this artist, specific, recognizable imagery is a springboard from here to there - a way to synthesize the material world with the world of spirit and mind. Allen has shaken off the numbing effects of cynicism and over-exposure in contemporary life. She takes an expanded and liberating view of things, knowing that images may enhance rather than diminish each other through their association and contextualization. Myth and metaphor, symbols and stories are alive and kicking in Allen's work. They are, she says, rich realities of the human mind, to be respected and used.
Animals - like the humble toad, for example - are treated on multiple levels in Allen's painting. Broadly speaking, the toad represents a union of water and earth, an organic wholeness within the living world. But, from its frequent position in a lower corner of Allen's paintings or monoprints, the toad is also an observer - intuitive, knowing, sometimes humorous - a mediator between painting, artist and viewer.
The animals in Allen's paintings are part of what she calls a hierarchy of consciousness. Their way of knowing, their lore, their place in the universe falls on a continuum that embraces all life, including humanity. Using animal imagery and human imagery is really all the same, says Allen, because there is a still-unfolding mythology that includes each of us. In a cycle where distinctions in the great chain of being are unimportant, the animals may serve to dramatize the human condition or may even replace the human altogether. Allen explores the sensory life of animals - their vitality, their awareness, their kinship to the environment. They leave us wondering what it means to be wild, to be fully alive.
Oil on linen, 36"x28", 1990
© Page Allen
Her favorite human template is more specific. It is a pointing angel borrowed from a fifteenth-century Sienese painting by Sano di Pietro. With the angel, says Allen, "I wanted to retrieve a piece of our symbolic heritage that is as apparently distant and corny as angels are." Holding a burning torch or leafy branch in one hand and pointing downward with the other, the angels serve as guides, witnesses or judges. But in their studied sweetness, these Christmas-card angels are refugees from an era of faith set adrift in a modern sea of doubt. Are they in some way metaphors for Allen's feelings about her own crises of faith in art? Here she seems to be playing with art history, invoking simultaneously the fifteenth-century's simple faith in the existence of angels and Gustave Courbet's blunt pronouncement, "Show me an angel and I will paint one."
The templates, including that of the angel, add welcome tension to Allen's work. At once concrete and ethereal, they allude to an ageless metaphysical struggle that questions the very nature of reality. If painting is, as Courbet believed, an essentially concrete art, consisting only of the representation of things both real and existing, then where can romantic invention, fantasy and reverie find a home? With a foot in each camp, Allen honors both painting and human perception. Through the angels and symbolic animals, she invites us to question the literalness of the world, but at the same time to trust our perceptions and to make, not merely find, meaning.
The Forever Road
Oil on canvas, 54"x72", 1990
© Page Allen
For Page Allen, the paths to meaning are both outward and inward journeys. She tells of long car trips through the open expanses of the West, when she allows her imagination to rise with an ascending flock of geese, to flow over the edge of a hill with a herd of antelope. They remain, these elusive exotic creatures, in her paintings. Innocent and wise, always alert to danger, the antelope are here one moment, vanished the next. Merged with the deer or stag, they are ancient symbols of the spirit of the forest, keepers of its mysteries. Alone or in pairs, they occupy Allen's paintings and monoprints with a quiet aloofness underscored by their ambiguous degree of abstraction.
In her paintings, the Western landscape is often bisected by a pristine road. It disappears at the horizon, delivering an odd depth to the conscious flatness of the painting's surface. Even as the road stretches into infinity, as in The Forever Road, it compresses near and far, playing with the accepted certainties of time and space. To the artist and to us, the roads offer the possibility of epic journeys. They are about choices - to go or not to go, to leave this place for that.
The Riding Lesson
Oil on canvas, 54"x80", 1990
© Page Allen
Allen's formal devices mirror her symbolic intent. In The Riding Lesson, a vertical opening through which landscape is glimpsed centers us, as if before an altar. Our visual approach is solemnized by an almost ritual symmetry; each person and thing has its prescribed place, moving in measured, rhythmic procession into the mythic space. The artist has carefully balanced the visual weights of images: large dark horses, their contours a blend of curves and angles, flank our visual approach into the light. The horses function as hieratic guardian figures at a temple entrance. Here the sacred is nature itself - trees, the horizontal flow of a river, a flock of birds. All are elements from the artist's experience, remembered and recombined here as if in a dream. Tiny riders circling at lower left are a flashback to her daughter's riding lesson, but they also retain an eerie connection to the enigmatic horses above. Fascinated with the way the active and unconscious mind interact, Allen allows them to merge in a process that is inherently and productively mysterious.
When Allen divides the canvas into glowing segments of color, the effect is not unlike that of stained glass. She has, in fact, been inspired by the richness of medieval glass and manuscripts, seeking to connect their symbolic color with more visceral modern chromatics. Her color choices are never arbitrary or merely "colorful." She pursues color as a powerful expressive force - energizing in its beauty, resonant in its mythic association. Allen seeks the point at which kinesthetic awareness and symbolic function merge, a confluence found in great music, in poetry, in color and form perfectly joined.
In her monoprints, the artist's hand is very much in evidence - sometimes literally as in Here Me Now [the lead image to this essay]. The print of Allen's palms, superimposed one over the other, suggests a layering of meanings. On one level it is a metaphor for creativity: the touch of the artist's hand brings forth form - unique, unexpected - out of the void. Combined with her primordial toad and a star-sprinkled cosmic blackness, the handprints also speak of ancient imprints on cave walls. The effect is mysterious, evoking the earliest stages of human consciousness, when art was intended not to be beautiful, but magical. Allen's is both.
Loren Eisley reminds us (quoting Francis Bacon) that "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." It is this eccentricity within an implied pattern, the overlay of hard-won awkwardness and sophistication, that enriches any encounter with Page Allen's painting. Brave, intelligent, still growing, she is an artist of rare depth. Her search for universal symbols and her concern with ending the fragmentation between mind and body are her own, but they are also part of a larger contemporary search to find meaning in the reality of art.
Statement · Bibliography · Essay
to "Apple" Essay
List of Artists
All images © Page Allen.
All text © Sharyn Udall.
This essay has been excerpted from
a longer version,
originally published by Owings - Dewing Fine Art, Santa Fe,
Page Allen exhibition catalogue, September 28 - October 27, 1990.