by Maria Porges
Across boundaries both physical and cultural, human beings have pretty much always had ambivalent feelings about crows. To many, they are a symbol of impending death or disaster, though their extraordinary intelligence and mischievousness is also widely recognized in myths, poems and cautionary tales.
As The Crow Flies, William Allan’s foray into this territory, features 15 small paintings, each portraying a solitary bird in motion. Captured in moments of flight or landing, wings folded to dive or hiked up like raised shoulders, Allan’s crows are simultaneously unique and universal. Painted on blank, creamy-white canvas, the rich darkness of their plumage becomes translucent in places, as sometimes happens with sumi ink, but Allan paints these portraits with
diluted tar transforming this thick, viscous substance into something delicately fluid. (He also admits, in a statement, to using whatever might “fill a need,” including shoe polish, soy sauce and ketchup– as well as more conventional art materials.)
As passionate about fishing as he is about painting, Allan has spent a lot of time observing the natural world. His celebrated watercolors of trout, for example, radiate an Audubon-like combination of reportage and confounding artistry. In the expansive canvases featured in his solo
show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, dramatic Western skies serve as a backdrop for objects like sneakers or worn jeans; they hang dreamily, almost Magritte-like, in mid-air. Real in their details, they suggest a deep familiarity.
Crows, one presumes, are a part of the artist’s daily life, given that he lives and works in Marin County. About them, he writes: “Young Crows, being birds/ Must learn quickly/To fly fast/So near the trees/So near the ground… they love to fly.” Marcia Tucker, in the catalog essay for Allan’s Whitney show, wrote: he “injects magic into the familiar, the known, the ordinary aspects and images of life. Preferring to describe his occupation by the word ‘poet,’ rather than ‘artist,’ he is less interested in making something entirely new than he is in changing what is already there.” As an artist who extracts the extraordinary from the quotidian, Allan, a native of
Washington state – and, not insignificantly, a high school classmate of William T. Wiley and Robert Hudson – shares an affinity with nature comparable to that of Beat poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen.
The remainder of the show consists of works loosely inspired by Pliny’s Natural History. Written nearly 2,000 years ago, the book purports to describe the entirety of the natural world, a concept that clearly appeals to Allan. Calling his version of it Pliny’s Natural History of Jewels, he describes its contents as “Jewels that were never destined to be owned, that could be found
anywhere and enjoyed by anyone, anytime. “ In three freestanding cases, groupings of exquisitely painted lima beans stand in for things like seashells or bird’s eggs. Neatly organized in small open grids, they are confounding in their attractive eccentricity. Additional examples are on view at SFMOMA as part of the group exhibition On the Edge, titled, presumably, in reference our location at the far side of the continent. That show, on view through July, also includes Traveling in Strange Circles (1973), Allan’s wonderful painting of sneakers and, even more improbably, a ring of old-fashioned Christmas lights, floating before a cloud-filled sky.
Both shows afford us the opportunity to view the work of a seldom-seen master.
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William Allan: “As the Crow Flies” and “Pliny's Natural History of Jewels” @ Anglim Gilbert Gallery, 14 Geary Street location, through February 18, 2017.
Learn more about William Allan. Read a 1994 profile of the artist by David M. Roth, published in conjunction with Allan's retrospective, "Transient Poet" at the Crocker Art Museum: Part One. Part Two.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.