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April 30, 1998—Faith in Painting

By Tom Rhea.  Published in the Bloomington Voice, Bloomington, Indiana

One of the more enjoyable (if uneven and unpredictable) rites of Spring in Bloomington is the series of MFA thesis shows, conducted with lightning speed at the IU Art Museum and SoFA Gallery. In a survey of the state of the arts, these shows seem an appropriate place to start because the exhibits represent two (and sometimes three) years of intensive work ina chosen field. Ina addition, the painting students particularly seem to embody in their work so many of the dilemmas and decisions facing a contemporary painter today, in terms of style and subject matter. In this student work, the struggles of being a painter, both the anguish and the joy, can be seen in raw form, before such problems are solved and effaced by a more professional style.

The painting program at IU is particularly known for being a strong figurative school, which is another interesting prism through which to view the work of these students. Figurative painting has had to defend itself over the years, as abstract, conceptual, performance and video art hav all made their inroads. But figurative paitning has also enjoyed a resurgence recently. Painters like Lucien Freud and Philip Pearlstein, at the end of strong careers, each year have a more visible impact on student work. While de Kooning’s last work suffered from a debilitated emptiness, this year’s Chuck Close exhibit shows him working with new inventiveness and vitality despite his near-decade paralysis.

Currently at the IU Museum (in a show that opens Friday, May and runs until May 10), Ian Green, Tim Allen and Joseph Begnaud display some opposing strategies in solving some of the problems of figurative painting.

Tim Allen shows a descriptive gift in his paintings on faces and figures seen in soft focus, that I take to be of long standing, which may be his bane as well as his bread and butter. The portrait heads and oil sketches show his strengths in the same measure that the larger compositions, more self-consciously posed, show his limits. With the repeated features of “Erica” (also seen in “Self-Portrait as a Shadow”) and with his own familiar features (“Waiting for Samson”), he brings an intensity to the description that is little matched elsewhere. It’s clear that his interests are completely absorbed in the small heads. When he attempts the larger work with multiple figures, “The Hunt,” the individuals become isolated, like beads on a necklace, by a spot lighting that doesn’t penetrate the recess of the background so as to organize the space. The figures attempt to bridge the spaces between them with gestures. Hand reaches for hand, but the carefully painted fingers seem small against the enveloping darkness.

Still, each of the paintings contains an unexpectedly eloquent or surprising passage. In “The Hunt” it’s the oddly dressed girl in long pigtails and black pantyhose stepping off into the water. In the double view of a seated model in “Passing Anthemoessa” it’s the light between the rigging in the model of a clipper ship. Allen’s most bravura passages come in his oil sketches from Italy, small and spontaneous. The jumble of shapes in “Vicino il Bar della Pace” shows a strong afternoon light tumbling over columns. The drawing is all in the color, and the light makes easy sense of the scene. Always in the work there is the contest between teh tight description, cold and controlled, and the loose impression, warm and energetic but hard to sustain.

Another curious inner conflict finds expression in “If Destiny Had Wings,” between prurience and reticence. The female nude is presented head on, presented with a theatrical flouish, as she lifts the drapery as if drawing her own stage curtain. But her head turns coyly to the side and one arm covers her breasts. (Similarly, the black pantyhose in “The Hunt” makes the model more naked than nude.) Allen will hav eto come to terms with his own pleasure in painting, because the interest can’t be covered up with the stilted literature of the poses. Besides, there is a more evocative poetry in the unexplained mystery of the different colored eyes of “Erica” that in all the strained historia of “The Hunt”.

April 15, 1994 —Visual Arts – Paintings in the Flashlight Gallery

By Tom Rhea.  Published in the Bloomington Voice, Bloomington, Indiana

Upstairs in the Flashlight Gallery paintings by Tim Allen are on display, predominantly oil portraits. On a hard board surface, he pushes a smooth brush, employing many of the high realist tricks of portraiture, the full-blook red of nose, ears and mouth, the opal shadows and eyelids. He apes Rembrandt in two self-portraits, one in a wide-eyed gaze (with deep resonant alizarin shadows) and one, near parody, in antique breastplate. But he lack the luxury of context, no Baroque bombast, and again the dilemma of finding a meaningful imagery appears. The fine large forma portraits by the door and ont he stairwell show a great assurance of hand in flourishes of cloth and clothes, but are hard-pressed to suggest the excruciation of our age.

The painting that approaches this the “Self-Portrait in Broken Mirror”. The situation he prresents challenges his considerable ability to the point of impossibility and paradox. And the literal set-up approaches metaphor. I think he will find fertile ground with situations that defeat his omniscient powers of observation and force him into areas of uncertainty and ambiguity. The obscurity of shadow, the difficulty of recognitions, the multiplicities of reflections, these all could slow down the reading of his paintings, that are fast to the point of slippery. This might provide productive tension with his natural style, and prove more convincing for his subjects, existentially and perceptually.