By Mario Diacono
Photography, and after it photoshop, have brought to representation and painting new relationships in space, form, composition, and subject-matter investigation; they have impressed a social acknowledgement into iconography and newly informed subjectivity with concepts rather than with impressions or “sentiment”. They have thus opened new ground for existence to advanced iconic constructions. Reproducing a photograph or a photo-derived image has freed drawing and painting from a subjectivist mimesis of nature, and refocused the artist’s task on shaping incessantly a new language for representation, for symbolization and meaning. Rarely have new artists concentrated their entire work on a single image or set of images and a single medium, as Sandra Allen has been doing with her large-scale drawings of dormant, leafless trees minutely rendered in graphite on unprimed paper. We could mention Morandi’s still lifes of bottles painted, though with constantly changing pictorial inflections and stylistic moods, for forty years, but the most important reference for her are in fact the drawings of Vija Celmins (especially the Long Ocean series from 1973), which are seminal to much of today’s conceptual practice of painting after photography.
Allen drew her first tree in 2001, using as a source a photo of it she had taken in the vicinity of her house. Photographing the trees in color with a 35mm camera, then redrawing the image in black and white on a thick paper and in a much larger (often more than ten times larger) scale, with a soft pencil (a 6B) and strictly following a dense grid traced on the photograph, allows her to visually re-experience an initial perception (in her case, an epiphany) in almost sculptural terms. Since the flatness of the photographic image is translated in the magnified scale and by the graphite’s texture as volume, as modeled body,it’s transitions of color are reformulated as a dramatized play of dark and light, and the effect of plasticity further enhanced by the removal in the drawing of any trace of landscape,with a consequent isolation of the tree as an absolute form. Scale, texture and light indeed make Allen’s icons of trees appear painted rather than drawn: they carry the materiality of pigment more than the low consistency of pencil,as if she were painting with graphite, the grainy texture of the Arches Rives paper itself somewhat continuing the physicality of the thick layers of drawing. The assertiveness of Allen’s trees as existential icons of wounded, mortal but heroic strength is in any case sensibilities or generations away from Celmins’ tautologous realism, even when the detailed articulation of the trees’ bark clearly recalls the constructed patterns of her ocean’s waves. Their insistent blackness, inscription of time, radical verticality, monumentality of form echoing Renaissance meta naturalism,their figural specificity contrasts with the grayness, timelessness, horizontality, all overness, purely spatial, and minimalist formulation of Celmins’ ocean, deserts, and sky.