Melbourne

Davida Allen

Powell Street Gallery

Thick paint usually signifies a belief in cathartic self-expression. As the tidal wave of a return to painting has subsided, the link between brushy rhetoric and autobiography has now become such a cliché that artists who wish to demonstrate their awareness of the self’s contemporary erasure are expected to work clinically. Yet Davida Allen’s reputation within Australia has so far escaped question, even though she is above all a self-consciously autobiographical artist. Her paintings are about her private life as the mother of several children and about her role as a housewife who paints. She has attracted considerable media attention, as if it were a miracle that a WASP housewife could be an artist.

Allen paints like the most macho of neo-Expressionists; she blocks out isolated, full-frontal figures in swathes of oil paint over thick fields of color. Children are a major theme in her work. One should not assume that her family is the pretext for feverish creativity; children have always been an especially valued subject in Western painting. They often serve as an important signifier of self-disclosure and revelation, as in Chardin’s paintings of young cardplayers. The high status accorded such images has persisted up to today. Allen’s depiction of children is the means to a reclamation of her own identity. We only gradually see the mother in A Family, 1989, because she is virtually the same color as the blue background—just as it takes a while to look beyond Allen’s turgid paint and her privileging of emotional response. Yet her intention is also an unusual inversion of the typical neo-Expressionist linkage between heavy content and brushy handling. She attempts to depict her life in the context of turbulent manufacture, subjecting her domesticity to trial by paint. Rather than provoke empathy, her clouds of overbright paint repel.

The best paintings in the show, like A Family, provide a sense of travesty—a mockery not of her subjects but of sensuality and the viewer’s desire. Comic and satiric qualities in Allen’s work, and her cartoon-like illustration of dependency and sexuality, are easily overlooked in favor of their affirmative naïveté. In A Family, the parents are so overwhelmed by paint that they are collaged pieces of canvas floating in a sea of blue, like rafts, the mother disembodied. Allen’s painting is strange because Allen herself is clearly not, yet she is surrounded by strangeness. Her pictures are conservative—they do not accept the experience of pleasure and pain as meaningless or inconsequential. Allen assumes that her subject matter is of value, is breathtaking, and is complete. The narrative of the artist-as-mother overpowers all possible counter narratives offered by her children. The result is uneven, but in A Family Allen expounds a sort of manic, bright-eyed clarity that is perverse enough to allow her a future beyond the twilight of neo-Expressionism.

Charles Green