Sandra Allen

Artist, pencil on paper

by Patrick Murphy

Sandra Allen
by Patrick Murphy

For the past decade Sandra Allen has focused her attention exclusively on the subject of trees, working primarily in graphite on paper, and on a large scale. Her trees are mostly bare, isolated against a plain white background. Each one is rendered with a hyper-realist sensitivity to the play of light and shadow across its surface. In every drawing her photorealism is balanced by a sure feeling for composition and abstract pattern.

Allen lives and works in Hingham, Massachusetts, where her proximity to the extensive World’s End nature preserve affords her ample access to her chosen subject. She spends hours walking among the trees that surround her there, taking inspiration from their strength and solidity. “I look at them,” she writes, “and I see injury, struggle, endurance, and survival.” In describing her approach, Allen points to a recent article by Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum. Del Trediciexplains how a tree’s responses to light, water, wind, ice, and insect predation are all recorded in its patterns of growth, and suggests an analogy between a tree’s shape and the development of our own personalities—both determined by the interaction between “genetic endowment (nature) and environmental pressures (nurture).” Allen’s approach is likewise anthropomorphic. A pair of spare columnar trunks, branchless and entwined, suggests a couple’s embrace. Another, massive and furrowed, bears its weight like a burden. Still others shed their bark like chaffing skin, or display their knots like wounds. Allen responds especially to those trees with some prominent flaw—the scar from a lightening bolt—that speaks to endurance in the face of adversity. Indeed, to a drawing from 2003, now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, she gave the title Endurer.

Until she began this long series of trees Allen thought of herself first as a painter, her drawings an integral part of the process but not a focal point. In exploring her subject, however, she has come to prefer the immediacy and spontaneity of drawing. Though she has repeated a number of her tree drawings in oil on canvas—both in grisaille and in a bright expressionist palette—she tends to favor the drawings, and finds she can achieve a greater range of expression with graphite alone than through the application of paint. Her work may be placed in the tradition of Photorealism, but unlike contemporaries such as Chuck Close or Vija Celmins, who are interested in hand-drawn images with a pointedly photographic feel, Allen’s realism is placed in the service of the subject itself. She discarded earlier attempts at drawing trees in a loose, interpretive style, finding that this approach placed the emphasis on technique rather than meaning. One might expect the opposite—that a photorealist technique draws attention away from the subject—but Allen avoids overt traces of the artist’s hand precisely in order to allow meaning to unfold directly.

Allen began by simply taking photographs of the trees that caught her attention, but was soon compelled to take this distillation a step further, drawing from the photographs in order to edit away extraneous detail and focus on the irregularities displayed on the surface of the trees. (A close comparison to the maquette of collaged and gridded photographs for her drawing Endurer reveals numerous changes made to focus attention on those areas that best expressed the sentiment she wished to convey.)

In her previous drawings Allen’s isolated trees, stripped of their original context, nevertheless felt integrated into a perceived landscape that the viewer could easily conjure. These new works, at once richer in descriptive detail and stronger as abstract pattern, bring the viewer much closer to the subject. Devoid of atmosphere, the discrete sections of each tree appear flattened against the shallow background like specimens to be studied and classified. The crown of papayas in particular, with its strictly frontal perspective and stark symmetry, recalls the plant studies of German botanist and photographer Karl Blossfeldt, whose 1928 volume Urformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) presented 120 carefully arranged details of plants from around the world. Blossfeldt’sclose-cropped images were printed as photogravures, with a tonality—closer to drawings than photographs—that suggests decorative wrought iron rather than organic material.

Sandra Allen once remarked that trees are like “the external wiring, circuitry, or plumbing of the earth,” and in several previous drawings she compared the primary limbs extending from a tree trunk to the veins that return blood to the heart (Vena Cava, 2004/2005). Here, she extends the metaphor to the human nervous system. Her title Synapse—derived from the Greek syn (together) and haptein (to clasp)—refers to both drawings. That magical point at which a nerve impulse passes from one neuron to another, or from neuron to muscle, is not a physical connection at all, but a gulf, a narrow gap across which neurotransmitters are released and reabsorbed through a complex process of diffusion. Like a nerve cell viewed through an electron microscope, one of Allen’s trees throws out rigid stems from its crown, axons extending into the synaptic gap.

Allen’s previous drawings of trees were on a human scale, smaller than life-size but large enough to envelop the close viewer’s field of vision. She is currently working on a monumental, site-specific work for the DeCordova Annual Exhibition, a towering palm trunk that stretches the length of a single, thirty-five foot sheet of paper. Larger than life, it will compel us to consider the implications of a hand-crafted image that rivals the presence of that which it represents, and promises to transform the museum’s atrium into a hothouse vision of shimmering graphite.

Patrick Murphy
Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston