May 20, 2015

Jim Allen, New Zealand's first contemporary artist: AWF15

Auckland Writers Festival

"Good morning everyone, I'm Diane. I'm a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland. Welcome and I'll hand over to Ron."

I felt as if I'd fallen down the rabbit hole rather than just descended into the Auckland Art Gallery basement for this session in the Weekend Gallery Series. Who is Diane, (except of course a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland)? She has no lanyard, she's not wearing a Festival t-shirt, nor an Art Gallery t-shirt, but rather a loose white cotton shirt which I later look for and find on google images described as a "New Sexy Classic Womens Boyfriend Wind White Shirt Loose Long Sleeve".

Behind Diane, on the stage, the unintroduced Senior Curator, New Zealand and Pacific Art Ron Brownson is sitting chatting genially with someone who must be the artist Jim Allen, previously unknown to me, and the subject/author of a new book called Jim Allen: The Skin of Years

Diane gets back down and Ron raises his mike, looks at us, smiles, pauses, and premises, "Looking through The skin of years, I realised it's impossible to cover it in 40 minutes."

I'll just insert my own premise here. Ron Brownson is always a pleasure to listen to, for his vast knowledge, his thoughtful intelligence, and, not least, his sly humour.

The book was born out of a series of recorded interviews with art historian Tony Green and artist Phil Dadson.

Ron asks, "Was there a lot more talking that didn't make it into the book?"

"Yes."

"Wystan Curnow, in his foreword to the book, said 'Jim Allen is, we should now be saying, our first contemporary artist.' Do you agree with this?"

"Yes."

And then, "Is it okay if I tell everyone your age?"

"Yes."

There's just the slightest hint of a communal chuckle, but no worries, they are about to hit their stride. That last query was a lead-in to the story of how it all began: how Allen, after serving in World War II (making him now over 90) found himself in Italy, where the British Army, bless their hearts, ran courses for their soldiers, including art courses. Allen did a one-month course in clay sculpture which was held in the 16th century Medici Stables, just outside of Florence. "They were all marble," he says. "We had a stable for two."

In 1948 he received a government scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art in England. He was given 1200 pounds, which it was intended he would live on for three years. "How long did that last?", asks Ron. "Oh, about a year."


Ron shows us Polynesia, Allen's 1951 diploma work for the Royal College of Art, carved of Ancaster limestone, one of Henry Moore's favourite stones, as hard as marble but "warmer and fleshier", as Ron has so ably described it. In 2007 Allen gifted this sculpture to the people of Auckland, as part of the permanent collection of the Auckland Art Gallery.

[Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 2007]

Back again in New Zealand, Allen taught at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts and continued to create astonishing works, such as his Sculpture 1, from 1955, which Ron calls "the most radical piece of sculpture produced in New Zealand that year", now destroyed, and Light modulator from 1960, now in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery.

Sculpture 1  (photo courtesy Ron Brownson)
Light modulator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki


The most amazing discovery for me was the Futuna Chapel in Wellington, "one of the most spiritual interiors in all New Zealand", as Ron describes it. It was designed by John Scott, with windows by Jim Allen that cast shimmering patterns of coloured light on the walls, which in the course of the day move across a large scale, magnificent mahogany Christ figure, also Allen's work. This "very emotional, very passionate work", to use Ron's words, was missing for 12 years, stolen, but happily it was recovered and reinstated in the chapel. Allen remembers, though, not being happy with the fact that "a local person" had thought it would be a good idea to oil it until it was almost black. Looking at the mahogany, you can understand why.


Futuna Windows by Jim Allen
Photo by Simon Burt www.futunatrust.org.nz 

The Futuna Christ www.futunatrust.org.nz

The year 1968 was a turning point for Jim Allen, as for many around the world. He took a sabbatical from his teaching and visited Mexico, the U.S. and Europe, and it was on this trip that he first encountered, and heard the siren song of, performance and conceptual art, a song which this wanderer not only did not resist, but absorbed and brought home with him, becoming one of the leaders of post-object art, as it was known in New Zealand.

The next image is Allen reclining on the floor among 4 chainsaws. 

"What is the name of this performance piece?" asks Ron.

"Chainsaws."

"And what was the poem that accompanied it?"

"Howl. The chainsaws sat on the floor humming and I read the poem which no one could hear of course. But the chainsaws didn't have enough power so they cut out before the end of the poem."

Photos of another piece, called Contact, presented at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1974, show us people in their underwear with buckets of paint, then the same people applying the paint to their "points of articulation", and finally all the people covered in paint, entangling with each other in a sort of orgy of smear and colour. It was about human contact, but, says Ron, "I have to confess I was there and I didn't understand it. What was the reaction?"

"Oh, it was picked up at a high level. I was warned they were going to try to join in."

"In 1974, this was really outside New Zealand contemporary art, wasn't it?" asks Ron.

"Yes," says Jim, "I think so."

He pauses and goes on, "I think that at the time very few people understood what I was doing. They didn't have a clue. Recognising that gulf between the audience and the work, I persisted in the work."

I persisted in the work.

Acknowledgement and admiration from me and everyone in the room, for that. Ron Brownson, in closing, says it for us. "Jim, thank you so much for your generous art and your wonderful book."



-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 23:02
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