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Heather Allen’s New Figuration

In recent years Heather Allen has been making strange, dubious sculptures, puzzling creations that lend one’s fantasy wings and hijack the viewer into worlds difficult to enter. They will surprise, perhaps shock, certainly confuse him or her because:

Up till now, the English artist has been known for her installation-based works. Their didactic impulse was directed at social and socio-political themes such as freedom and breaking through barriers, presented in model-like settings. The human figure was the core and centre of this artistic endeavour: people as part of expanded architectural and social space.

And now this!

Weird, organic entities occupy the exhibition space as solitary, three-dimensional objects which remain silent. Most of them quietly shine in their restrained, languorous colouring, growing out of the floor as if by magic. They remind one of an excursion to a natural history museum, an archaeological and paleontological collection, a trophy room and salons, cabinets of wonders of quirky amateurs.

Has someone crossed coral seeds with the sperm of the last mammoth here?

We have, however, no explanation to clarify things, the artist herself speaks only of ‘form’ – aha! – so it’s about abstraction.

With her new sculptures, Heather Allen makes the immediate sensory event into a mediating medium of non-verbal knowledge, the sensory experience into the foundation of knowledge and understanding.

These are big claims for sculptures that initially appear modest, and forego all monumentality. Rather, some of these creatures find themselves on different planks, swaying over an abyss of comedy and seriousness. An artist who manages this with such aplomb as Heather Allen must have been blessed with a fathomless sense of humour, and must, therefore, be English.

Perhaps she’s seen at some time the illustrations of tower-like piles of worm excrement made in wood from photographs that the famous Charles Darwin commissioned for his script, ‘The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms’. In any case, I thought I could hear the distant curses and smirking of Shakespearean witches as I stood alone with the sculptures – and finally raucous laughter from the region of Monty Python.

However, it would be too easy to reduce Allen’s sculptures to aspects of the comical or random because of their unusual, figurative forms. Even there, where shining, erect members unfold their glory like hyper-sexually loaded dildos and embarrassingly dazzle the viewer, we are dealing with the results of a goal-oriented strategy and a conceptual process.

What looks as if it emerges from a continuous process of growth is the result of planning, development and correction. Sketches, drawings and other drafts are stepping stones and mark the course to compelling sculpture. In fact, these new figurations are based on two-dimensional research, which accompanies the development of the sculpture to its final fixing as a ‘form’ in space.

The raison d’être of these sculptures is their figuratively formed existence; they justify themselves by their manifestation.

Heather Allen’s ‘forms’ are singular, unique artworks that have not been seen before in such quality. Perhaps Louise Bourgeois and Alberto Giacometti are waving from their distant, massive clouds -, but in the circle of contemporary living artists, I have not found anything comparable.

Heather Allen’s art points us in another, a new way: and that is how it should be!

Dirk van der Meulen, November 2015