New York

Philip Allen

Rosa Esman Gallery

Philip Allen’s show was the strongest, most convincing first solo exhibition I’ve seen since moving to New York more than a decade ago. This judgment includes all the artists whose careers have been launched under the banners of Pattern and Decoration, New Image, graffiti, and neo-Expressionist painting. Instead of following such trends, scrambling after the crumbs they have left behind, or trying to carve out a previously overlooked niche, Allen has painstakingly evolved his paintings out of the realization that American abstract art of the ’40s maintains a graceful balance between formal demands and expressionistic needs. He is aware that since Jackson Pollock’s death the formal demands of composition have been repeatedly codified and recycled, with each tired version frequently passed off as the latest ironic or bombastic update. Allen belongs to the growing number of young abstract painters who are investigating Abstract Expressionism and the earlier triumphs of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Burchfield. However, instead of going back to the limited repertoire of, say, Dove, Allen has addressed the dense, operatic compositions of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Pollock; and, what is more remarkable, he has transformed his predecessors’ ideas into contemporary paintings.

The works can be divided into three groups: five small acrylics on Masonite panels: five large, thinly painted abstract grisailles: and seven mostly large, opulent concatenations of symbols and abstractions in oil. Although highly accomplished, both the panels and grisailles seem dress rehearsals for the even more elaborate, more exorbitant abstractions. What distinguishes the latter group—each of which the artist has worked on over a two- to three-year period—from the work of Gorky and Pollock is the extent to which the separate forms have been articulated into autonomous entities within a wrenching spatial complexity. The compositions are not cubist but postcubist. Space has been collapsed like a telescope, jamming together the near, far, impossible, and imaginary. As a result, the scale changes are swift and freewheeling, both logical and intuitive.

Sounds from the River—Departing Spirit, 1981–84, is Allen’s most ambitious painting so far. Its complex space teems with highly articulated metamorphic, metaphoric, and symbolic images. Near the top of the painting three overlapping horns spew out traces of reddish paint. This visual synesthesia boldly dramatizes the work’s inherent dialectic between materiality and image. Among the other images are a river, a stone-and-girder bridge in the foreground, a causeway in the deep space of the middle of the painting, and the generous prow of a dory whose every plank is highly individualized. Across from the dory is a bust mounted on a pedestal. The painting also includes the moon, an angel whose body is covered with eyes, an archway,a sinuous blue saplinglike shape from which protrude red fangs, sections of ornate picture frames, and a fissure connecting the moon to the dory.

The complexity of this highly concentrated composition, its numerous specific images and incidents, puts Allen in the line of Bosch and Brueghel the Elder. The boat, the bridges, the fissure, and the archway suggest passage, while the ornate frames contain glimpses of other realities. By conflating an angel with something as real and banal as a city bridge, Allen goes beyond the gestural matrix of Abstract Expressionism. In fact, his accomplishment is nothing less than the transformation of a dense gestural field into an arabesque weaving of specific shapes, images, incidents, and symbolic narrative. Sounds from the River—Departing Spirit, however, is not a symbolist pastiche, but a postsymbolist synthesis of gritty urban life, and an imaginative response to it. New York is to Allen what Dublin was to James Joyce.

Allen’s method of painting bears some parallels with the way we look at Rorschach ink blots. First he lays down a gestural field. Its inchoate incidents become hints to be followed, manipulated. and evolved to a rich, full articulation. This is the artist’s way of welding his highly critical self-consciousness to his wide-ranging, associative imagination; it is also why the paintings take so long to finish. To my mind, Allen’s accomplishment is comparable to the best painterly dramas of Malcolm Morley and Anselm Kiefer. That Allen, who is still in his early 30s, must be compared with the virtuosos of an older generation should not only convey the breadth and seriousness of his ambition, but also how much he has already achieved.

John Yau