Heaven and Earth

June 7, 2009

Heaven and Earth: New sculpture by Simon Allen

Dr Tom Flynn 2009


The trinity of land, sea and light that lies at the heart of Simon Allen's sculpture has been a central element of Cornish art since the region began attracting the attention of landscape painters in the early nineteenth century. Later it became the main source of inspiration for the pioneering plein air painters who clustered around Newlyn and Lamorna in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and later still the avant garde groups of painters and sculptors that settled in St. Ives between the wars and which continued into the '40s and '50s.  


This is hiking country, but it is also sailing country and indeed flying country. Each activity offers a singular perspective on the natural terrain and on the constant interaction of land, sea and light.  The St. Ives painter Peter Lanyon, who took up gliding in 1959, said of his aerial experience: "The air is a very definite world of activity, as complex and demanding as the sea…The thermal itself is a current of hot air rising and eventually condensing into a cloud."


These meteorological observations found expression in Lanyon's vigorous pictorial language. By untethering himself from the earth to fly above it, he discovered a new way of understanding terrestrial features and their interaction with the ever-changing sea and ambient light.


Simon Allen's sculpture has undergone a similarly liberating evolution, but instead of leaving the land for the air, he took to the sea.


In 1989, Allen was recruited by a Swedish marine biologist to help sail a 36ft ketch across the Atlantic from Bermuda to Falmouth. The trip should have taken the two men three to four weeks, but shortly after they left the Azores they encountered a Force 11 storm that extended their crossing time to seven weeks. Returning physically and emotionally exhausted by the experience, it was only many years later when he began making sculpture that Allen discovered the most positive legacy of his transatlantic odyssey.


A sculptural language began to emerge as if buoyed by a deeply embedded memory of the pulsing rhythms of the ocean. Allen, who is also a drummer, sensed in the sea's shifting patterns a visual equivalent of the hypnotic minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Seemingly repetitive motifs fold in on themselves and re-form to create fresh configurations that in turn suggest an underlying scheme beyond our grasp. Allen saw these same wave motions expressed in the sculptural ripples left in the sand by the departing tide. Silent rhythms are everywhere, it seems, not merely on the visible register but at a sub-atomic level in the very substance of who we are. "The more I look, the more I see these deep rhythms everywhere," Allen has said. One recalls the words of the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo, who worked at St. Ives in the early 1940s. When asked about the source of his forms, Gabo replied,


"I find them everywhere around me, where and when I want to see them. I see them, if I put my mind to it, in a torn piece of cloud carried away by the wind, I see them in the green thicket of leaves and trees. I can find them in the steamy trail of smoke from a passing train or on the surface of a shabby wall…I look and find them in the bends of waves on the sea between the open work of foaming crests. Their apparition may be sudden, it may come and vanish in a second, but when they are over they leave me with the image of eternity's direction."


One senses in Allen's creative project a similar continuity of form and emotional response. His work occupies a fertile zone between sculpture and painting. Indeed his sculptural technique evolved organically from his training as a master gilder. However, instead of trying to locate his sculpture within the notional boundaries of art or craft, better to recognise that it incorporates elements of both. At a time when so much contemporary art is poorly conceived and shoddily executed, it is refreshing to encounter work that has been fastidiously made and yet has a freedom and vitality that belies the painstaking processes that brought it into being.


Allen has conceived a modus operandi that incorporates two distinct but conjoined disciplines. The carving stage is physical and expressive. The rhythmically rippling surfaces, swooping undulations and swirling peaks and troughs represent the trace elements of a physical carving process that has its own bodily rhythm. By contrast, the painstaking application of gesso and 'bole' - the gilder's ground formed from clay and pigment - and the gentle brushing on and burnishing of white gold leaf call on a more contemplative cast of mind. It is the tension between these two modes of awareness that gives the finished works their singular presence. Works such as Fall and Wavelines combine an almost kinetic sculptural energy with luxurious surfacetextures that respond sensitively to ambient colour and light.


Allen has always been intensely sensitive to colour. However, until now he has purposely restricted himself in sculpture to the natural colour ranges offered by various types of gold leaf, aware that their propensity to reflect and absorb light will create colour on the surface of the work, or indeed in the eye of the beholder. These colour properties change as one's position changes relative to the work. Depending on the local conditions, the available light, and the proximity of other nearby colour sources, the same work can move through seemingly limitless transformations. At one moment a work might be spangled with reflected sunlight, at the next it displays a dazzling polychromy; here it seems bathed in a mysterious lunar glow, while there it mimics the properties of moving water or wind-blown sand.


Now Allen has struck out into fresh territory. This new body of work includes ventures into subtly applied colour - most notably Cloud Circle (Blue) and Cloud Circle (Green),which encourage us to meditate on either the sky as seen from the earth, or the earth or sea as seen from above the clouds. The technique he employs to achieve these numinous effects involves theapplication of12 carat white gold leaf, which he describes as "a beguiling and wonderful material," onto finely ground pigment. The leaf is then rubbed down with pumice so that surface and ground become fused and yet simultaneously visible as separate elements. The result is a kind of palimpsest, a series of diaphanous layers so intricately laminated together that one can never be quite sure where the surface is and how deeply the image recedes. The delicate, grid-like effect formed by the individual leaves lends the work a structural coherence that complements the billowing cloud-like forms that drift across the surface of the work like ghostly muscle-bound figures from a Michelangelo fresco. The circular format of the Cloud Circle sculptures further enhances the sense that the image extends into a limitless space beyond the boundaries of the work.   


Although drawing its inspiration from a long regional tradition of artistic responses to the natural world, Allen's sculpture reaches beyond the local and specific. Just as the Modern movement painters and sculptors who settled in St. Ives during the war found affinity with their counterparts in progressive architecture who shared their instinct for space and light, so it is entirely appropriate that Allen's work is today meeting with approval among contemporary designers and architects. He recently completed a commission of two large sculptures for the new British Embassy building in Madrid, confirming that his work is gaining wide recognition among contemporary designers as well as among enlightened private and corporate collectors.


Allen is fast achieving that thing that only a select few of his illustrious forebears in the pre- and post-war St. Ives circles achieved: recognition beyond the local. He is doing so by working with commitment and integrity to refine his own sculptural grammar. The fact that his reputation is growing so rapidly and widely testifies to his having found in abstraction what Ben Nicholson described as a "powerful and universal language."


Dr Tom Flynn

London 2009