Los Angeles

Tom Allen

Richard Telles Fine Art

At first glance, Tom Allen’s paintings are almost too familiar—countless Romantic revivals and the continual return of representation have prepared us for these pseudo-Germanic pictures. Even as the artist hones his technique from one show to the next, a tendency to flaunt “bad taste,” or the kitsch factor, is still in evidence. But look more closely: This is neither another parody of Caspar David nor an homage.

First, Allen’s resurrection is accomplished in a manner that might be termed site-specific: His proximity to the Hollywood dream machine and Disneyland makes all the difference. In addition, the prewar exodus of the German intelligentsia to the Hollywood Hills, as recounted in Laurence A. Rickels’s The Case of California, provides another vital cultural link. This relocation is no doubt partly the cause of the tropical/lurid, smog-enhanced skylines that Allen opposes, in such works as A Candle in the Forest or As Under a Drunken Star (both 2003), to the darkly tangled stretches of black forest below. This young painter has obviously scrutinized the LA sunset for new colors to mix in with those of the old masters.

Allen’s dialogue with art history is materialized via subtly “off” color combinations, vaguely skewed compositions, barely uneven surfaces—slick and pocked, thin and layered, lacquered and bone dry. His montagelike method of overlaying past and present is announced quietly, through a system of incongruities and formal knots that must be patiently unraveled. Having caught the viewer in their structural web, the paintings then deliver their poisonous sting.

What are we to make, for instance, of Allen’s gruesome Pieta, 2002–2003—the Virgin as a featureless, electric blue shroud enveloping a moldering, decapitated Christ? In a set of accompanying “program notes,” Allen mentions “all the absurdities and painful concessions of the burden of attachment” that come with this iconographic territory but then gives these themes a spin that is at once vicious, morbid, and revelatory. This small scene is set in a cave, following the Crucifixion; the Mother Mary has evaporated into an empty, billowing robe. Allen’s Virgin is as lax and formless as the putrid body of Christ that she may now swaddle with her whole being (or what’s left of it), yet this dismal, deathly moment is here restaged as one of ultimate reconciliation, the merging of opposites. What matters, Allen suggests—at least for painting—is what happens inside the cave, not out.

It is no accident that in Allen’s paintings the sun always seems to be setting (if it’s not already night). Emphasizing the still underexamined confluence of early avant-gardism and the occult, this artist is diligently rethinking the modern history of painting in the strict absence of light. The sunless sky is rotten and malevolent but churning with psychedelic potential. Accordingly, in Pieta, Christ’s wounds bloom forth as garish magenta flowers, and in Drunken Star the leaves of a broken tree turn into dancing flames. At the entrance of the gallery, a drawing of the frontispiece from an old grimoire announces the scholarly nature of Allen’s undertaking. Another drawing within the body of the show—two charts delineating the characters of the “good” and “evil” spirits—clearly establishes his position and perspective on the material. Depicted slightly larger than its partner and in regal hues of purple and gold, evil, of course, wins out.

Jan Tumlir