Mexico City

Tom Allen, Mirrors (South of Heaven), 2019, oil on canvas, 23 × 27".

Tom Allen, Mirrors (South of Heaven), 2019, oil on canvas, 23 × 27".

Tom Allen

There’s something about artifice that gets people so up the ass of their own virtue that even nature can be accused of looking fake—especially when it’s convenient for the hegemony. So it’s no surprise, then, that flowers, nature’s most tarted-up characters, are almost pathologically feminized. Baudelaire articulated the shitty double bind between flowers and women quite poetically in the section of his seminal 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” titled “In Praise of Cosmetics”: “Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural.” He thought of makeup as “a sublime deformation of Nature,” at once defending and reinforcing a very particular and very Western prejudice that David Batchelor would (much) later characterize as chromophobia: the othering of color through exoticization and feminization.

Given all this, it’s odd that the opulent machismo of Tom Allen’s small, parlor-ready paintings of flowers is as refreshing as it is. His supersaturated canvases shirk the moral implications of chromophobia by incorporating the sins of artifice as part and parcel of their seduction. They’re hot, but they’re not stupid. The exhibition “Là-bas” was made up of six new paintings dotted across Lulu’s three rooms. Of course, they photograph well, but to be near them in the flesh was truly to experience fetishism as a time machine. The curl of a single one of the cattleya orchid petals in Mirrors (South of Heaven), 2019, houses a whole spectrum of pink in a tiny shadow so lush you could feel it twist in your eye. This Flemish attention to detail is offset by an unstable sense of space. The flowers in Allen’s works aren’t anchored to a tabletop, contained by a vase, or even buttressed by their own vines; instead, they drift like drops in a lava lamp. The backgrounds are packed with hallucinogenic patterns that look skinned off a Ken Price sculpture, or filched from a black-light poster. Given that French literature is an explicit point of departure for Allen, the effect could be described as something like a DMT-influenced walk-through of the reclusive aesthete Jean des Esseintes’s apartment in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (Against the Grain) (1884). It was not impossible to imagine the thick, spiked yellow leaves in Musella Lasiocarpa, 2018, being tessellated into wallpaper for a baroque salon. But of course it would be too much. The depths and layers with which Allen builds up the golden lotus banana plant of the work’s title betray both a fidelity to and, in its intensity, a perversion of the subject’s natural colors.

Even the psychedelic elements of Allen’s compositions go beyond postmodern pastiche. Polychromatic vibrancy has been linked and likened to drugs and indecency again and again since Plato first began wedging form and color apart, claiming that beauty achieved through “fraudulent, baseborn” cosmetics was subordinate to the hard lines earned through gymnastics and exercise. Flowers don’t need makeup. But Allen collapses this moralizing history of nature’s insidiousness as a paladin of color by saturating his paintings beyond the precipice of artifice, diluting the distinction between color and form. His flowers are not passive, feminine beauties. If anything, they’re acid-bright tree frogs, warning us of their own aposematic indifference.