Exhibition Review

Magic in the Making: Theodora Allen's weald at Kasmin Gallery, New York

Nina Blumberg | February 26, 2019

Theodora Allen first began showing her otherworldly, ethereal paintings at Blum & Poe, the gallery that represents her in Los Angeles, where she lives and works. From her debut show in Los Angeles in 2015, to her first solo show in New York currently on view at Kasmin Gallery (Theodora Allen, weald, Kasmin Gallery, New York (January 24 - March 9, 2019), Allen’s work is consistently enchanting and worthy of deeper discussion.

Allen has set herself apart from contemporaries by establishing a symbolic language wholly unique to her artistic practice, inspired by the artist’s fascination with philosophy, mysticism, Medieval iconography and more. The plants and other objects comprising the paintings in weald serve as analogues for deeper ideas of transcendence and introspection. For example, the moth is a motif that Allen uses to represent time and its inherent fleeting nature; additionally, moths have an internal navigation system that drives them to light that often ends in their demise. The hourglass, on the other hand, is a complementary emblem of time to the moth, as it is both measured and reversible and thus holds a more positive, hopeful significance for the artist.

Installation view: Theodora Allen, weald, Kasmin Gallery, New York. Jan 24 - Mar 9, 2019. Photography by Diego Flores

Allen has revealed that there is a decisively humanist undertone to her paintings, an exploration of the idea that humans have control over their decisions in life rather than simply following predetermined, unchangeable trajectories. The symbols she chooses convey the universal concept of the search and desire of human beings to know what lies ahead rather than simply living in the present.

The Kasmin exhibition weald is divided into two groups of alluring, blue-hued paintings. They are split both in a physical sense (literally in separate rooms), and figuratively in terms of the iconography depicted. The first room of the gallery holds a group of smaller works, each composed of a shield or crest-like shape with a different plant species inside of it. Allen calls this group the ‘dwale’ paintings, given that ‘dwale’ is a medieval term for a common anaesthetic drink used to induce sleep. It would have been made of opium, poppy, henbane and nightshade-- the very same plants the artist has chosen to feature in these works.

According to Allen, she is “inspired by weeds and wildflowers, things that aren’t necessarily rarefied plants… There’s an accessibility and a sense of the ordinary in a lot of these plants.” The chosen plants are survivalist species that thrive regardless of limited access to water and nutrients. In these particular paintings, Allen particularly hones in on species from around the world that are valued for their uses in natural remedies-- narcotics, destabilizers, medicinal or otherwise-- as in the medieval ‘dwale’ potion.

Theodora Allen, Shield (Belladonna), 2018, Oil and watercolor on linen, 26 x 20 inches (66 x 50.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery, New York

The second room of the gallery holds a group of four paintings, the ‘weald’ group, that still embody the same medieval aesthetic as the ‘dwale’ paintings, almost as if they were illustrations taken from an ancient illuminated manuscript. It is important to note that the term ‘weald’ is an Old English word referring to a heavily-wooded area, or wild and uncultivated region. This meaning is again very fitting, as the scenes of each painting are that of a hand raising a goblet, a hand holding a branch under a full moon, a hand wielding a sword, and a hand cupping a star coin, all set against thick woodland backgrounds. These icons derive from 15th century Tarot card symbology; the shield defends, the cup nourishes, the weapon confronts.

Taken together, the two groups of paintings lend a duality in meaning to the exhibition as a whole. The connotations of ‘dwale’ pertaining to a wooded landscape and ‘weald’ relating to sleeping/dreaming create a fascinating juxtaposition between the concepts of a physical landscape versus a “mindscape,” or scene from one’s dreams. ‘Dwale’ is also an anagram for ‘weald,’ underscoring the push and pull between the show’s two interconnected halves.

Thedora Allen, Monument, No. 1, 2018, Oil paint and watercolor on linen, 67 x 57 inches (170.2 x 144.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery, New York.

In addition to being symbolically layered in meaning, Allen’s works are layered in regards to the artistic techniques that she employs to create them. They are executed with the scientific precision with which one would illustrate botanical specimens in a textbook, yet still somehow maintain an ephemeral, otherworldly quality. Allen painstakingly creates this effect through a multi-part process: first, she pools watercolor onto the canvas, letting the paint run freely to the edges of the canvas. This initial step leaves an organic, watery stain when it dries, upon which she then applies oil paint. The resistance of material between the oil paint and the watercolor creates the dreamy, atmospheric quality that is so characteristic of Allen’s paintings. After adding more fine layers of oil paint on top of the original dried watercolor layer, she wipes away some of the oil pigment before it fully dries. This technique brings out a faint impression of the texture of the linen canvas underneath the paint, diversifying the painting’s surface even further.

The paintings on view in weald are not only technically excellent and captivating, but Allen has also eloquently crafted a deeper narrative for the exhibition that gives the show substance that isn’t easily paralleled.

Theodora Allen's weald is on view through March 9 at Kasmin Gallery, New York (515 W 27th St.)

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