At the fine Mostyn Gallery in Llandudno, Wales, there is currently an exhibition of various contemporary artists, We Have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans/Gennym Ni Mae’r Drychau, Gennym Ni Mae’r Cynlluniau. By far the most interesting works there, and the reason for my visit, are some paintings by Katie Allen.
Allen paints intricate landscapes with acrylics, making use of the key features of these paints: that they are water-resistant when dry, and dry quickly, so can be over-painted on one another. Her paintings involve intricate borders and highlights, each flower and leaf bordered, with little dots of colour inside every one, an effect which must take hours of tedious, careful, mind-numbing (although also possibly spiritually-uplifting) work to produce. A reproduction of her Autumnal Arboretum (2009, Acrylic on Board, 153 x 122 cm) is shown here (courtesy of the artist’s website), although no reproduction can do justice to the intricacy of the actual painted work:
I find Allen’s work reminiscent of that of Peter Doig in its intricate representation of a landscape; I am reminded of paintings such as Doig’s White Canoe (1991), with its detailed lake-surface reflections of scrub and trees. Both are modern-day descendants of the carefully-observed landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As with Doig’s work, I feel Allen’s efforts and skill are wasted on representational art. With such facility, intelligent imagination, and obvious energy, she could produce very fine abstractions.
Of course, all art is abstract, even fully representational art, since art is a manifestation of what is in the artist’s mind, of what the artist sees, not what exists in the world outside his or her mind. Clearly what is in Allen’s mind is a distortion – to me, a very attractive and compelling distortion – of the real landscapes that the paintings point to. Despite being representational, her work is much closer to the abstract end of the spectrum than to the realistic, pictorial end. By being very nearly, but not actually, abstract, her work unsettles me. In other words, her methods and technique are highly abstract yet still the paintings point to some real-world landscapes, and these two – the methods and the semantic signified – are in conflict.
How much stronger and more compelling Allen’s work would be if her paintings did not point to anything ostensibly real and external, but were pure abstractions. As with all purely abstract art (for example, music, islamic tilings), the paintings could well still point somewhere, but precisely where would only emerge with the act of painting and the act of viewing. Allowing the meaning of the work to emerge rather than pre-defining it, however, is so contrary to what most of us moderns think artists are doing (that they are communicating a message to us, and that message is pre-existing in themselves) that doing this requires some courage. The strength of Allen’s existing work shows that she has this quality.
POSTSCRIPT (2010-08-23): More on the abstract nature of all art, and the relationship between object, eye, mind, and hand, here.
Anon : We Have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans/Gennym Ni Mae’r Drychau, Gennym Ni Mae’r Cynlluniau. Exhibition Catalog, Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, Wales. 2010-05-22 to 2010-09-04.