by Mark Van Proyen
Of the many artful dodgers who came to prominence in Northern California art during the 1960s and 1970s, William Allan might well be the dodgiest and the most traditionally artful. Along with his longtime friends Robert Hudson and William T. Wiley, he was schooled by high school art teacher Jim McGrath in Richland, Washington, migrating south to San Francisco at some point in the late 1950s. Although he was not among the 23 artists whose work was featured in Peter Selz’s 1967 Funk exhibition, Allan has frequently been proclaimed to be a participant in that movement. His work found its way into the spotlight in the early 1970s, manifesting as large acrylic paintings that pictured airborne fish or floating blue jeans set against billowing clouds and cerulean blue skies. In other words, he was, among many other things, a surrealist channeling and elaborating on the late work of Rene Magritte with an additional nod to the sublime cloudscapes of John Constable.
The exhibition, curated by Twyla Ruby, consists of about 35 works executed in an astonishing variety of media, the earliest from 1966 and the most recent from 2020. Some of these are collaborations, such as the quartet of short films made in 1966, originally shot in color super 8 and subsequently digitized. Bruce Nauman collaborated on all four, and Robert Nelson on one. They come across as absurd instructional videos, as in Legal Sized, where the artist demonstrates how two small envelopes can be disassembled and reconstructed into one large envelope. All focus on quotidian activities that become documents of processes by simple virtue of being subjected to the camera’s eye. Another collaboration is the 1993 work on paper titled Dumpster Baby, featuring stylistic contributions by Allan, Wiley and Hudson seamlessly meshed while showing each artist’s distinctive style harmonized in an overlapping fugue.
This exhibition sharply deviates from Allan’s last retrospective, held in 1993 at the Crocker Art Museum. Where that exhibition focused on paintings he made up to that point, the lion’s share of the current presentation emphasizes works executed during the subsequent three decades, few of which involve pigment on canvas. Among the latter, the earliest, Tentative Assault on Mt. Fear (1971), a large work painted in aqueous layers of diluted acrylic, depicts a floating jack knife and an airborne salmon hovering high in front of a sublime cloudscape, surreal for sure but also grandly romantic. Other paintings, like Untitled (Dead Fish) from 1982, are executed with painstakingly applied layers of thinned oil. Created in a tenebrist technique, it depicts a dead fish floating belly up in a murky pool of contaminated water, environmental toxicity being the likely cause of death. The largest and best painting is from 1982, titled Transient Poet Leaving Home II. It departs from Allan’s usual practice of using natural forms to convey a mock-gothic horror story featuring a brightly colored stick figure fleeing an ominous house on a pitch-dark night. Is the house on fire? The illumination from its windows suggests that as one of several possibilities. A quartet of smaller works on canvas from 2015 also bears mentioning, if only for their unusual materials. Titled Crow (numbers 1 to 4), they show the silhouettes of dark birds painted in a combination of tar and acrylic medium. Each looks like an ominous sentinel or a small angel of death.
Works on paper dominate the selection of post-1993 examples, indicating that the earlier retrospective represented a watershed moment that sent Allan in a new and very different direction. Among these, a trio of 47 x 37-inch pastel and graphite works from 1995 stand out. In various color schemes, they depict neatly folded cardigan sweaters as if they were stored in an open drawer, all symmetrically parallel to their respective picture planes, inviting us to look closely at the design of their threadbare fabrics. For example, in Us and Them, we see the images of speedboats stitched into the fabric, one rendered in red and the other in blue to make an oblique and understated comment about Cold War era antagonisms, which seemed to be waning at the time of the work’s execution.
Three vitrines and a shadow box frame on the wall contain assortments of around 60 tiny paintings, done in glowing watercolor on lima beans that were no doubt sealed and primed to prevent decomposition. They are identified as a single work from 1973 titled Pliny’s Natural History of Jewels, a hat tip to that first-century Roman who contributed so much to the early scientific study of nature. Many, if not all, of these, are renditions of disembodied eyes, birds or reptiles, echoing Allan’s abiding interest in nature. Other works reflecting the same concern permeate the exhibition in various forms, perfectly mirroring the early springtime natural environment visible beyond the gallery’s long bank of northeast-facing windows. One of these is titled Recorded Birdsong (2020), an overhead hoop supporting 48 strips of linen fabric upon which Allan painted cryptic notations of birdsongs. These may or may not be directly related to the recorded birdsongs faintly audible in the exhibition space. Still, they do evidence a careful contemplation of the rhythms of nature and an attempt to understand their depths.
Nature has always been one of the great art historical subjects, reaching back seven centuries in the European tradition and twelve centuries in Asia. Many artists have returned to it for escape, renewal and inspiration, while some, like Allan, have done works reflecting on the melancholic friction between its unspoiled and spoiled states. This brings us to the final series of works in the exhibition, a series of 16 digital photographs created between 2017 and 2019, some as large as 20 x 30 inches, most somewhat smaller. The majority are ebulliently colorful in a spring-timey fashion, testifying to how life perpetually renews itself. That said, I still question how successful these works are as photographs. Most resemble the kind of stock photography anyone can download online, although I am sure that Allan captured and printed the images himself. Their low resolution often contributes to a vague representation of their subjects. Only one, of a half-buried beaver baring large buck teeth and formidable claws, titled Welcome to My Home (2017), elicited a second glance. Allan’s floating fish and other birds and beasts may all be mortally imperiled by impending environmental disaster, but this fangy little furball seems hunkered down and ready to take on whatever comes its way.
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William Allan: “Negotiations with Eden” @ di Rosa Center for the Arts to May 14, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.