Allan and I started our conversation by discussing Looking South from the Dry Garden, a painting that will be in an exhibition at Wave Hill Public Garden & Cultural Center, a place she considers her “second home,” her “spiritual home.” The show opens January 18, 2023, and is called “Cultivating Eden.”
In this work, Allan combines the underlying geometric structural foundation of a historic garden she has been studying for about 20 years with a fluid, abstract brushstroke. With this counterpoint of structure and color, she has created painterly music. She has said she likes that tension between representation and abstraction, or between structure and gesture.
When I told Allan that I saw a similarity between Looking South and an early Paul Klee painting of a mosque in Tunisia, the artist was delighted. Indeed, I see here a strong affinity between Klee and Allan rather than any direct influence. Both love combining representational and abstract elements to create work integrated by movement. Both achieve a musical quality in their paintings.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Allan has always had as one of her goals to evoke motion in her art; to that end, she also mentioned the art of Sonia Delaunay, the Vorticists, and, somewhat surprisingly to me, Linda Benglis’s knots.
She emphasized that she likes to include a time element in her work. “On a given day, you journey; you start out in one place,” she said, and “end up in another.” This is evident in the next painting we discussed, Conflated Landscape, also completed in 2022.
In this painting, the artist combines her early start of the day at the greenhouse in Wave Hill, ending with dusk at the 225th St. Bridge. She says she takes lots of photos and later, in the studio, develops the composition on the canvas. She “finds” the forms as she is working through the painting.
The bare tree in another recent landscape, Skeletal Tree, Ghost Ranch, evoked for me the one in Giovanni Bellini’s Agony in the Garden.
National Gallery, London.
Although there is no overt religious symbolism in Allan’s painting, the spiritual kinship is unmistakable. Perhaps both are about the “journey” Allan mentioned. Both paintings depict winding roads, turning and twisting, and leading to some sort of enlightenment. Allan told me that Bellini’s St. Francis at the Frick Collection is her “favorite painting in the world.” So maybe I am not too far away in my thinking here.
Last year Allan painted a tondo, a painting on a round canvas with round stretchers.
She had made several of these earlier, and when asked why, she said she was inspired by the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome. She also mentioned the Italian Renaissance use of the tondo form. I love the fact that she has combined ancient history with her present – her residence near the Hudson River. This also constitutes a literal demonstration of her spinning world.
Allan is drawn to quirky and unusual shapes and subject matter.
Collection of Andrew Arnaboldi.
She told me that she loves debris in its many forms, and the evidence of what was once alive. Again, this evokes movement, a journey – indeed, a profound one, concerning life and death.
Duality pervades Rebecca Allan’s art. She continually contrasts real/imaginary, life/death, organic/inorganic, structure/freedom. She has even gone so far as to make diptychs (as did Diane Churchill and Joan Mitchell, whose work she loves). In this diptych, Allan contrasts spring greens with icy winter lavenders, laced with silver.
Perhaps because of my own fascination with it, I broached the idea of synesthesia. She knew about Joan Mitchell and Charles Burchfield and their synesthesia, but didn’t think she was a synesthete herself. She mentioned that she had lived near Buffalo, a few miles from where Burchfield had lived. She loves Burchfield’s art, and pointed out that he had used abstraction as a metaphor to show a kind of pantheism. In fact, she called Burchfield her “primary touchstone.”
I asked her if she perceived this diptych as real or abstract. Although she called the diptych “abstract,” she did see granularity and patterns of light and dark in nature. But abstraction for her, she said, had to do with “extracting the essence of an experience.” “Painting is a way for me of controlling the uncontrollable granularity of matter,” she said.
Allan is a certified designer in sustainable garden design. In fact, she founded a business in 2019 called “Painterly Gardens.” She designs and restores gardens – mostly residential.
However, she has said, “I will always go back to painting because it is so difficult. But it is so satisfying when it works.”