From an artist talk given in January 2018
For myself as an artist a problem emerges since I need to use the language with which I have become familiar to describe that which the language itself has been designed to obscure.
How can visual art be used to communicate that you are seeing an illusion? Similarly, written language, ostensibly being used for communication, reasserts the concepts of duality, thus simultaneously thwarting true communication, or union.
To work through this problem I like to use words we call ”contranyms”, words like “cleave”, which means both “to separate” and “to bring together”. Often the title of a drawing or painting will have two or more meanings that are contradictory. I like to think of them as one word poems, since you can let the title interact with and inform the visual aspect in different ways. The images will often have the same ambivalence, and I have an image archive saved under the category “ambivalent gestures” that I draw from again and again. My favorite is one from a1940s Life magazine of a woman frolicking in the surf while her male companion gestures toward her. But is she frolicking? She holds her shoulder as if she has just been struck with something, and the man in the background postures in a menacing way. Another figure, female, seems uninvolved in the “drama”. This image would be perfect enough for me to use in multiple compositions but there is another element that makes it even better! The woman holding her shoulder seems to be running backwards, back into the she surf. It’s as if we are watching an old family Super 8 movie running backwards, and hearing the whirr of the flickering projector in a darkened living room. I call her “the bather who runs eternally backwards”. Her tormenter is “the executioner”, (“execute” means both “to kill” and to “manifest”) and the other bather is “the innocent bystander”. Here, in one image, is the complete nutshell encapsulation of the entire body of all my work.
In “Charge” I use an image, this time from a children’s encyclopedia, to play with the idea that how things appear depends on one’s vantage point. The word “charge” has many meanings, among them “to invest with energy” and “to accrue a debt”. The composition features three panels of two figures (myself and my granddaughter) on a boat and a successively receding shoreline. The passage of time is delineated in the darkening of each panel. By repeating the panels in 1/2 scale placed on top of the three original ones a remarkable effect is achieved. The smaller panels appear to be both receding and advancing simultaneously. Thus the inferred space of the drawing becomes itself a kind of visual contranym.
“Voluspa” features an image from a newspaper from the 90s of a girl eating a candy apple at the state fair. I always liked the dichotomy of innocence and predatory savagery that she seems to embody. To make the image work with the poem I added the recursive element so that she is, in a sense, eating herself. I came across the word “voluspa” when researching Norse mythology that was relevant to another painting I was working on. It means: the song of the prophetess or sybyl; one of the Eddaic poems treating of the origin of the world, the meetings of the gods, the war of the Aesir and Vanir, the final struggle and catastrophe, and the restoration and return of the gods in a new existence. This work is obviously focussing on the struggle and catastrophe. At that time I saw hope, but not for us, as Kafka said.
“Atavus” includes two of my favorite found images -- the medical illustration of a mouth and a glass bottom boat from a Silver Springs postcard, which the mouth is swallowing. The word “atavus” means: a remote ancestor or ancestral type from which certain characteristics are inherited, though latent in intermediate generations. I wrote the poem right after the death of my maternal grandmother, thinking about how I and we identify ourselves in this world and how we might finally rediscover our ultimate identity.
“Commence” includes found text that came with the original image. The only thing I have added here is the title, which is a contranym meaning both to begin and to conclude. The fossil represented the ego to me when I did the drawing but now I think of it in the larger context of the creation of the separation from our true identity as the Christ. Either way it is its lack of relationship to any other life form, living or dead, that I find compelling.
“Scrimshaw” deals more with the illusions of time and space, and the illusion of the drama of victim and perpetrator. I had saved a tiny scrap of paper no more than a couple of inches long with the storyboard for the murder mystery. It always had a David Lynchian quality for me which I appreciated. The storyboard was interesting to me because it foretold what the author wanted to have happen. It exists here only as an idea of what form a future drama will take. The murder hasn’t happened yet but in the sense that it has been pre-ordained, and each scene blocked out, it already exists outside of time in the mind of its creator. The piece of scrimshaw on the whale’s tooth recounts a murder that has already happened, existing in the mind of its creator with just as vivid detail as the envisioned murder. This flattening of the ordinary sequential understanding of time is meant to be taken personally -- I take it that way -- and you are meant to feel as though this form in front of you is threatening to swallow you up. With the scrimshaw the victim (the whale) facilitates the retelling of its own death by proffering a tooth to be used as a canvas. To “proffer” means to “hold out” (something) to someone for acceptance. “Hold out” can mean either “to offer” or “to withdraw from offering”.
The other thing I liked about the storyboarded murder was that the victim and perpetrator were equally non-specific and could have been interchangeable, both with each other and with anyone at all. It reminds me of the Ho’oponoopono healing method of reconciliation and forgiveness where one takes full responsibility for any and all situations and problems.
The poem starts at the far right and continues at the far left. Thus you can imagine the poem and images being tied back together in a cylinder with the images and poem forming either the inside or outside surface of the same cylinder. This places you, as the observer, simultaneously inside and outside of the same container. What meaning does space have when considered this way? Moreover, what meaning does the drama have if the same drama is simply repeated ad infinitum. I ask you to consider here that all that has ever happened since the illusion of duality was created, is that the “crime” that was originally committed.
“Haruspex” was a drawing I did to complete my relationship with my father. A haruspex is someone who divines the future by reading the entrails of slaughtered animals. As with all the work where poems interact with visual content I am trying to make the textual element work equally with the visual, both compositionally and contextually, a new kind of illuminated manuscript. In this case the text forms “bars” to break up the images of the young woman, taken from old Italian police photos done in the front/side format. Only here I add an extra “side” so that there is a Janus reference. Notice that as she faces the future and the past she only looks down. She has no future and her past IS her present. At least it has effectively become her present. On her police blotter her crime is listed as “suicidio”, which translates to mean suicide. We can only surmise that someone this young was driven to murder a parent perhaps who tormented her in some unspeakable way and thus, in effect, murdered herself.
In “Harrow” the title refers to part of a device in a Franz Kafka short story that inscribes the name of a crime into the back of a convicted person with a stabbing needle. The needle, or “harrow” successively retraces the path of the letters, going a little deeper each time, until the victim bleeds to death. In the drawing, however, we see two figures overlapping one another -- an older man and a young person who could be either male or female. They are dying from hydrophobia, the final and fatal stage of untreated rabies where the patient recoils in terror from water that is offered to them while they die of dehydration. You will notice that the two figures effectively make an “X” together as the strongest observable compositional element. The letter “X” is a particularly potent symbolic letter and can serve as a stand in for identity, death, sex, or cancellation. All these meanings are referred to in this imagery, not least is the idea that the one thing that would save you (me) -- to see yourself AS another -- is the very thing from which you (I) recoil in terror. How can we be sure this is true? Because everything in our world preserves and protects the distance between us, the idea that we are separate and can take something from or hurt one another. Sex and cancellation are expressed simultaneously in the younger figure as he/she remains androgynous to us.
I have long been interested in anamorphic drawing and have wanted to incorporate it into my own particular vocabulary. In the drawing “Anamorph” I found a way to use this form of drawing which has had the fascination heretofore as a kind of amusement similar to any parlor game. In “Anamorph” I was able to re-imagine it as a recursive image that distorted and re-formed itself ad infinitum, both infinitely smaller within itself and infinitely larger. This may not be apparent at first glance, but you might first begin to wonder what the significance of the small circle is in the belly of the bird, dead center in the composition. You might next realize that the large diagonal stripes outside the circle of the anamorphically distorted bird-in-the-cage are in fact the colors of the bird in the cage seen now outside the distorted image, carrying within its belly a smaller version (and all the other smaller ones as well) of itself in the cage that you see en toto. The distortion and reassembly of the image never stops. The door to the cage is open however and the bird can leave its cage at any time. The poem is very closely related to the image in terms of meaning. This isn’t true with all my drawings and paintings but in this case I wanted to make a statement that held as little ambivalence as possible and as little chance as possible for misinterpretation. The word at the end of the poem “ectropy” means the opposite of “entropy”.
“Cataract” is meant to work on several levels at once. First, the word “cataract” means both “a waterfall” and “a disease of the eye”. I like that it is not a clear contranym but rather one whose inferred meanings could be thought of as “life-giving” and “life-defiling”.
On another level I wanted this piece to be an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s “Etant Donnes”, his last work. Etant donnes means “given”, after which Duchamp lists two of the elements in his installation: 1. the waterfall and 2. the illuminating gas. In Duchamp’s installation you look through a small hole in a massive wooden door and see a naked woman lying on a bed of sticks. She holds up a small lamp with one hand while a tiny waterfall eternally cascades over a cliff in the landscape behind her. She is eternally present and ready for union while being eternally out of reach. In “Cataract” the woman with the illuminating gas is replaced with the Statue of Liberty, but she is upside down and backwards, and moreover she is now assimilated into the culture, having been recreated as a refrigerator magnet. Similarly, the waterfall is re-imagined as a Niagara Falls souvenir, again a refrigerator magnet. Above the refrigerator magnets I hover on a ladder balancing on a tightrope. And to either side of The Statue of Liberty we see a scene split in half from my collection of ambivalent gestures -- the Bather Who Runs Eternally Backwards, the Executioner, and the Innocent Bystander.
The composition is meant to approximate the action of the children’s toy called a “Jacobs Ladder”. We used to call it the “click clack” toy. A series of flat panels are held together by ribbons that allow the panels to appear to “fall” when the top one is held and flipped. Each panel beneath the top one inverts itself, thus rendering the appearance of falling, but in fact remaining in the same position relative to the other panels, only upside down relative to its own previous orientation. In the “Cataract” version, a horizontal dimension is added so that the metaphor can serve as an earth plane/spiritual plane model.
There are two poems that flank each of the five images which are meant to approximate the ribbons of the Jacob’s ladder toy. Consequently they are appropriated the colors of children’s toys -- fire colors for the vertical axis and cool earth colors for the horizontal. They each describe the same family drama of disempowerment, but seen from two different times. One is seen more or less from the perspective of the victim as the emasculation takes place. The second poem splits the first one in half and contemplates the same event, but from a distance now, many years having passed. A different perspective is gained, which changes how the role of each person is perceived. I think of this as the beginning of the turn away from victimhood and toward the role of authorship.
There is in the first poem a point where the identities of my mother and my grandmother are rendered, by and large, indistinguishable. As one reads the poem one infers that in the line “but it was still her, stuffing a handkerchief up her sleeve ...” the “her” referred to is my grandmother, but upon finishing the line “while my grandmother served his severed testicles on bone china” the “her” will now be seen to be my mother. This may seem to be a mistake
and indeed it took me years before I understood how economically it reveals the conflation of two identities. It is easily missed because it does not interrupt the flow of the narrative, but once recognized it becomes apparent that “her” refers to two persons simultaneously.
This was the first painting I attempted after retiring from carpentry where I am combining the poetry and imagery. The focus here is on my mother and my relationship with her. I was aware of the restrictions her mother placed on her and how that immobilization filtered down to myself. Trying to understand it all felt like feeling my way blindly through the dark. Ghostlike images of “Guessing with the wooden spoons” and “visit to the Natural History Museum” float around an extreme closeup of a woman so that only her lips and nose can be seen.
“Braille” was followed immediately by “Shade”, a word that can mean “shadow”, “screen”, or “ghost”. I used here my favorite image, the “bather who runs eternally backwards”, but ran it through the copier while spinning and shifting the image while it was being copied. I made about 70 of these distorted versions of the “bather” and pulled out several that were strung together to make the composition. Again I deal with my mother’s relationship but include now her relationship with her own mother and the cumulative effect on myself and my brothers. Her alcoholism was her way of dealing with the pain of inability to find fulfillment, and led ultimately to despair.
The poem describes my childhood and the point at which I left my childhood home. There is an intimation in the last line of the poem that anticipates the focus of my more recent work, “I began to walk and endless road of quicksand only as long as my body.” Here we see the body a a kind of trap that endlessly repeats itself and into which one endlessly disappears. The imagery is taken from various sources--magazines, pamphlets, encyclopedias--but each one contains an orifice that serves one or another purpose. I think of the close up of the woman as one of the Nordic goddesses who sing the world into being. But she is also the goddess of death. Here already we have the essential problem presented of what we consider to be our reality--that what we bring into being we also condemn to dissolution. I contend that this emerges necessarily from mistakenly identifying ourselves as separate from God and one another. In the center panel we see a freshly dug grave in the winter. Seen from above the hole and dirt piled on either side look remarkably like a woman’s vulva. The grave then becomes a kind of visual contranym in that it contains its own opposite. Just so do we contain and express the opposite of ourselves as a function of our mistaken identity. In the third panel an observatory has opened its roof at night to view the larger reality that was obscured during the “reality” of the daytime. It’s a way of using an image to say, “Just because you don’t believe something, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” or “Dogs only see black and white, does that mean there is no color? What I think I think is right. Does that mean I am not my mother? (the author of my reality)”
The three part poem describes a journey into darkness. The awareness of what the darkness is and why I have descended into it has not yet dawned, but there is a sense that there is another greater reality beyond the one I perceive. The ability to connect with this greater reality has been long since lost but there is a memory of it that is more like the memory of a memory. Like the deaf children I am trying somehow to “hear” a music by feeling it with whatever perceptual mechanism is left to me. There is a sense that the problem is tied up with with who I perceive myself to be and that this very perception of myself ensures that I will not know my Self. Thus we see in the central panels two boys who participate in the categorization of their “identity” -- their teeth -- by revealing them to the photographer, during which process their faces are obscured. The word “apocryphal” means “spurious” or “of doubtful origin” and refers originally to the books of the Bible that were rejected by the orthodoxy of the early church. It can be argued that their rejection was more a function of the church’s preconceptions and fear of concepts that challenged its ultimate power and authority. Just so do our preconceptions and fears hide from us the fullness of our being.
When I was in college at Drew University I used to take the train into New York to go to the museums. I always brought along my 35mm camera to record anything I might regard as interesting. On one trip a blind man entered the train I was in and I photographed him silhouetted against the door and windows. So taken was I with the poignancy of the strong light and his blindness that I exhausted the entire roll of film. When I got the film developed I liked the way the contact sheet looked so I started to use it as the basis of a composition. But what to do with it? For the next 40 years I would bring it out from time to time, envisioning it as a larger, completed work, but never had the means or determination to make that happen. Having completed the large multi-panel “Apocrypha” I thought the time had maybe come to bring the blind man on the train to life.
I wanted to combine this imagery with a poem as I had done in the preceding works but a composition this long presented a unique challenge. I picked out the poem I wanted that was originally called “Eclipse” and thought that it could be sliced in half vertically with each half at either end of the train of images. I wondered what would happen if the left half of the poem were placed to the extreme right and the right half of the poem to the extreme left. Would the poem reassemble itself if the two ends were brought around in a cylinder, as Johns did in some of his paintings. But what would happen if you reversed directions and connected the cylinder with the imagery and poem facing in? Eureka! The poem reconnects exactly the same way whether it faces in or out. Thus we have the symbolization of space as defined by both the inner and outer surface of the same container. You or I, as the observer of this space, are simultaneously containing it and being contained by it. I had “accidentally” solved a problem I’d been thinking about for decades.
The idea of time as a series of discrete “events” is also referenced here, as the panels proceed sequentially. But nothing really progresses. You seem to be in the same place, more or less, no matter where you a are. Moreover, where are you in relation to what you observe? Are you in the train, with me, watching the blind man? Or are you outside the train, watching it go by as the silhouetted vignettes flash and disappear? If you are both container and contained, both inside and outside the train, then who are you? This illustrates my concept that time and space are the same illusion, perceived differently depending on how far from the mind they have been projected. The further from the mind, the more it seems like time, the closer to the mind that projects it, the more it seems like space.
Review in C'ville Weekly
by CM Gorey published July 24, 2019
A confession: I’m not adequately prepared to discuss Peter Allen’s “Un-becoming” show at McGuffey Art Center with the level of insight both the artist and his art deserve.
I certainly spent plenty of preparatory time and afforded the exhibition my contemplative attention. No, this is just a shortcoming of my own faculties—the same dearth that surely plagues the stupefied majority of Allen’s audiences. For there exists a gap of confounding distance between the viewer and the disarmingly tight collection of striking, illuminating, and unflinching personal visions alighting the walls of the Sarah B. Smith Gallery. For seven pieces, there is much to digest and decode.
I’ll liken my feeling of ineptitude to those moments when, reading an article, you pause to look up some referenced concept with which you’re unfamiliar; then, two minutes later, you find yourself on Wikipedia reading its definition for the fifth time, starting to question if it’s actually written in English, convinced that you know less after this fruitless endeavor than when you started, and cursing yourself for having dicked around so much during formative middle school math and science classes.
This is the overwhelming effect of Allen’s brilliance in visual art and poetry. To my great satisfaction, the artist’s statement and the ideas he’s shared about his creations demonstrate profound meaning. See, for a dummy like me, it’s a little intimidating.
Allen, a McGuffey member since 2011, says that his penciled paper and canvas pieces contend with “the nature of the self and the pressures of context.” His autobiographical discoveries invite viewers to consider their own identities, too. This lofty impulse is advanced through an upcycling of public domain, commercial, and personal images, recontextualized in graphite. He then couples his visuals with hand-cut, stenciled letters on a grid, spelling out his poetry in vertical streaks without space between the lines, often mirroring itself in a backward orientation. Though difficult to read, Allen accurately notes that his texts, which harbor some likely unintentional resemblance to Gee Vaucher’s protest art for anarcho-punk band Crass, look “at once ancient and modern.”
These bi-media pieces require us to consider the meaning of the words, as well as the images. There is little doubt that a casual Friday night art crawl won’t suffice, nor will the half-buzzed gallery stroll-through that might otherwise do the job for art proffered without paired poems. This takes time. Muttering your knee-jerk Rorschach test appraisals to the person next to you won’t cut it here.
Check out the titles—even they demand explanation: “Sequela,” “Scotoma,” “Albedo,” “Anamorph.” The good news is that, for three dollars, you can get a chapbook of sorts, where conventional presentations of Allen’s poetry are served with definitions of the unfamiliar language he’s chosen for his works’ names. Honestly, his verse provides more shocking imagery than his visuals, ornamented with terrors like deformed spider parent domination, town-crushing giants from childhood, and a recurring theme of relatives performing mutilations on each other.
The sinister elements that arise in his penciled canvases are more muted: an arrogant bather tilting aggressively in the surf, the confrontational gaze of a man among a gaggle of unhappy children, a stunned Red Riding Hood scrutinizing a contented wolf dozing in her grandmother’s clothing.
The show’s first piece, “Sequela,” features a type of self-portrait bust bisected by a vertical stream of text; the subject wears an unsettling white paper mask with holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. The mask itself hangs on the backside of the wall above the poem, “Vault.” The three-part text tells of wandering into a dense forest, referencing wolves and birds, animals that reappear in the aforementioned fable piece “Albedo,” and the perched bird of “Anamorph.” It’s an intricate pattern of meaning that no brief review has space enough to explore.
Viewers of Allen’s third solo McGuffey show will be taken by the explosive monochromatic beauty of “Zoetrope,” which extends across multiple panels, snaking around two walls. Allen says the idea for the work originated 40 years earlier, when as a college student, he would shoot photos on the train to New York for museum visits. It concerns his idea of time and space interacting as parts of the same illusion that obscures the viewers’ sense of location and ability to interpret what’s being observed. “Zoetrope”’s silhouettes, cloud bursts, rays of sunlight, windows, reflections, and waves of smoke make it impossible to tell.
Though Allen leaves us ample instructions for understanding his influences, ideas, and objectives, following him for the entire journey takes chutzpah. But, for those of us willing to take on the challenge, the rewards are many.