“The hands want to see, the eyes want to caress” Goethe
Goethe’s apparent inversion of otherwise defined sensory roles tells us much about the sensuality of vision, its complicity with truth and fiction and the quality of tactility that vision can extend.
On a late November day in Amsterdam, Matthew Allen’s works line up with benign military precision, braced for the studio’s crisp conditions. Though the works are modest in scale, one immediately registers that their proportions are carefully dictated. The fine linen weave is folded immaculately around the ample support, negating some of the distractions that orthodox supports can present. But Allen is a painter and doesn’t wish to disguise that fact.
Black Sea Cycle, a new quintet, sits out from the wall, appearing contained – held…until the the light shifts. Immediately they respond by asserting their mercurial character and their volume. The regular cadence of shadows describe their thickness, the shimmer of the surface insinuates something of their depth. As the face of each panel illuminates, blinking and reflecting the cool autumn light, they also embrace any ambient colour. And for a painter like Allen, whose earlier works have been driven by a sophisticated investigation of material and colour, these cooler, apparently restrained forms appear to eschew some of “paints” unpredictable behaviour and materiality but on closer inspection we can sense a very intimate finessing of the surface and a rhythmic cajoling of material that accumulates into a rich chronicle of touch.
As we are drawn close to view each work there is something of the millpond about them – alluring and mysterious. They can be clear one minute and dark and foreboding the next. One also has the feeling that these polished graphite surfaces shift between a fragile meniscus and a steely obdurate constitution. This fluctuation is not driven simply by the play of light across their faces but also depends on our position. Any reflections are fugitive and uncertain, despite the solidity of the form. It is this unrest, impermanence and fluidity that Allen is pursuing.
On seeing the works in Amsterdam, I was immediately reminded of an exquisite ancient Egyptian mirror seen in Paris just days earlier. Tarnished and imperfect it will at best have provided an alternate version of the viewer…a glistening visual fiction. The object itself was beautifully crafted, signalling a mandate beyond its form and function. My sense is that Allen wants his paintings to carry a similar responsibility – one where the painting participates in an existential enterprise, parrying reflection and light, ghost forms and shadows inviting us in and denying us in equal measure.
The size of Allen’s new work reinforces this assignment. Little more and at times less than the scale of our face, these works suggest solitary contemplation. Like a miniature they are to be seen privately, quietly at close range. Against the current fashion for scale and theatre, the modesty of his works invite a direct and rewarding relationship with the viewer. The monochrome paintings of Günter Umberg impel us toward a profound existential search for ourselves. Their density, their material depth and mystery move the object well away from the pictorial towards a profoundly visceral reading of presence and absence. Matthew Allen’s work is more tangible in what it reveals, but like Umberg the pictorial is replaced by the material, illustration by sensation and the judgments about form and scale are more than vital.
– Andrew Jensen