SERIOUSLY NOW JAMES ALLEN ADDRESSES BIG TOPICS WITHOUT THE USE OF IRONY

The Buffalo News

Date: Friday, November 08, 2002
Section: GUSTO
Edition: FINAL
Page: G21

By: By BRUCE ADAMS – News Contributing Reviewer

Illustration: Detail of James Allen’s “War Story: Nuns & Guns.”

REVIEW

WHAT: “New Work by James Allen”

WHEN: Through Jan. 5

WHERE: Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University, Lewiston

ADMISSION: Donation

INFO: 286-8200
James Allen has a lot on his mind. Serious things like death and aging, war and compassion. These are the principal topics addressed in an exhibition of Allen’s new, monumental, cut-canvas acrylic works and smaller plaster-relief paintings on view in the Castellani Art Museum on the Niagara University campus in Lewiston.

You can hardly miss the message here. If the work itself didn’t make it abundantly clear (and it does), there are ample wall-mounted artist statements and curatorial commentaries to guide you. They hardly seem necessary for work that leans heavily toward the illustrative in both technique and intent.

This penchant for elucidation is especially evident in “The Elder Series,” a group of intimate and highly narrative small painted-plaster pieces detailing the physical and mental decline of old age.

Allen presses forms into wet plaster, creating a surface relief roughly conforming to the planned final image. To this sculpted surface he applies acrylic paint – sometimes etching into the plaster for added line and texture – in a mildly expressive, dark and brooding style reminiscent of many of today’s graphic comic books.

Indeed, the black-framed plaster tiles suggest cartoons, an impression supported by the inclusion of short descriptive phrases – or captions – etched into each panel. The images and text amount to a litany of popular stereotypes about aging: “Older flesh bruises easily,” “Vision dims,” “Youth is distant,” “Children a comfort, a reminder.”

Allen does not shy away from heavy-handed sentimentality in subject matter or treatment. “How can they know me?” depicts two Dr. Seuss-type children being reluctantly nudged toward a feeble man in a wheelchair (complete with checkered lap blanket). In “Angel?” an elderly man sits up in bed, startled by the appearance of a cast shadow suggesting a heavenly apparition. “Same bed” portrays an old woman alone in bed; a pillow next to her has an indentation denoting a missing loved one.

All this occurs without apparent irony, a tool Allen has put to good use in previous work. With nothing to mitigate their stagey melancholy, these pieces merely read as maudlin depictions of time-worn cliches.

If Allen finds nothing appealing about aging, at least he displays some ambivalence over war. Another series collectively titled “War Story: Nuns & Guns” takes an epic approach that is nonetheless slightly more subtle.

A large mural-like work is comprised of life-sized, painted canvas cutouts of post-World War II army soldiers intermingled with nuns of various religious orders. The figures, which attach directly to the wall, are done in an expressive dry-brush technique using saturated colors on raw canvas, resulting in a vivid, yet paradoxically muted appearance.

Several of the painted soldiers assume aggressive stances. One takes on a look of horror; others have faces suggesting carnage and death. The nuns appear comforting or worried, or engage in fervent prayer. Each are essentially caricatures – archetypical players in an eternal dark comedy. For Allen, soldiers and nuns provide shaky wartime equilibrium as counterbalancing extremes.

A smaller cut-canvas work, “War Story: Soldier Guarding Pump,” places a camouflaged sentry beside a gas pump. As America now prepares for war with Iraq – some say over oil – the message here is remarkably relevant. But like much of the work in this exhibition, it is also somewhat transparent.

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