Written for the exhibition Graft (Comfort Station, 2014)

Noelle Allen: Aesthetics of Accumulation

“Long before the attention she would enjoy during the last decade of her life, Sturtevant was asked if her work would end once it was fully understood—what would happen if the “not yet known” finally became comprehensible? … Sturtevant replied, “There never has to be something else. It has to be everything else and not something else. There is no end. The head doesn’t go dead after you understand it. On the contrary, there are many places to go.” [i] 

While her dreamlike drawings and ethereal sculptures would never logically share curatorial space with the cool, detached output of this Picture’s Generation prescient, Noelle Allen’s works exploit Sturtevant’s insistence that art should be a step ahead of finitude or comprehension, always on the run and ever on the make. To that end, Allen’s mixed media drawings and sculptures are evolving articulations of a kind of experimental science of the studio, one that is at once rooted in formula, chance, physicality, intuition and the materiality of her daily life: with titles like Lattice and Tension, Overwinter and Nightshade, and materials like resin, gold leaf, graphite, watercolor and wax, the works are all about the realization of surface through odd collusions—results of exacting, long developed processes and the artist’s commitment to play in that special area between chance and precision. At once impossibly fragile and durably topographic, the surfaces make visible a both the artist’s “interior weather” and a global, unknowable cosmology.

To me, these explorations are singular—for example a circular sculpture that hangs like an improbable rainbow is perfectly different, like nothing I have seen before in nature, or the gallery. But they operate broadly in dialogue with artistic contemporaries near and far, including the Irish artist Isabel Nolan with her works that “point to aspects of the world as it has been previously represented in art or science”[ii] and Chicago-based Shane Huffman, who is known for considering the poetics and “concepts of time, space and matter;”[iii] there is also John Opera, who pictures nature by way of recent photographic subjects that include silicates, prisms, glass bottles, water and fruit placed under a microscopic lens.

Recent exhibitions such as The Way of the Shovel at the Museum of Contemporary Art characterize in contemporary art what Kaelen Wilson-Goldie has called a “tender affection for the outdated forms of anthropological and ethnographic display.”[iv] Allen and the former, however, might be considered an alternative to the artist as anthropologist phenomenon first articulated by Hal Foster in 1996. Instead, let’s consider the artist as protoscientist, who mediates for us a natural world according to idiosyncratic logic ruled first by transformational aesthetics. Karsten Lund recently described in an essay for Phantoms in the Dirt—an exhibition that fits squarely within the artist as protoscientist thesis—works that realize an “ineffable quality that seems to radiate from material stuff itself, from the mute facts of matter” through an acute “sensitivity to both the substantial and the ephemeral, to the immediacy of physical things and to the ways that visual evidence can also point to what isn’t so easily perceived or deciphered.” [v]

In a session on identity politics at the 2014 College Art Association conference in Chicago, artist Gregg Bordowitz opened his talk with the “problem of the many selved-person” as asserted by Stephen Mitchell in the book Can Love Last? Bordowitz described a passage documenting how an associate told Mitchell after a social event, that he was a “different person” to every individual with whom he spoke. As described by Bordowitz, Mitchell posits that we are, in fact, many-selved persons, and our identity and character constantly co-arises between people—we, essentially, are co-produced by a third term, which not only guides and guarantees the veracity and credibility of the exchange but also shapes the encounter. [vi]

As Bordowitz asserted, this is not model to be pathogized, but rather simply recognized: identity is constantly in production—a kind of accumulative process to be considered more broadly in relation to the concept of “grafting,” the collaborative curatorial conceit of the exhibition which brings Allen’s work together with that of invited artists who “responded to her most recent drawings” through the contribution of a piece of their own.[vii]

To “graft” in horticultural terms, is to “take a sample from one plant to fuse and propagate another.”[viii] Not only a discursive curatorial framework, this concept relates as much to Allen’s aesthetic as it does to her methodology; out of desire or necessity, many artists constantly recycle older works into newer ones, or relocate remnants or studio detritus into new projects. As such, her newly realized corpus is an assembly of “re-conceptualized older drawings and photograms that date from earlier in her artistic career – before having children and before full time teaching.”[ix] An artistic practice unfolds alongside, and some times in spite of, life experiences, and Allen has spoken of a need to synthesize her practice with the evolving demands of daily life. Through constant negotiations as a relatively new mother and a recently tenured professor, someone—as she put it recently “is always tugging at my shirt.”[x]  Intensely laborious studies, the older drawings used for Graft are clearly of a different time and place: they reveal a past artist passionate about the quality of line and absolute precision of application. The new works are those of an artist who has matured, let go: for example, an artist who has embraced the use of molds in her dimensional work purely because of the inherent distance it gives her throughout the process from a final, unknowable cast product.

Born out of a “many-selved” individual over time – many of the works, such as Overwinter and Lattice and Tension take on the cumulative aesthetic that engages the object’s own history as much as it does Allen’s. Each piece has contoured edges of poured resin that tell its story of its transformation, while the applied resin and other material over the surfaces of an old drawing has disrupted, co-produced and, of course, grafted something new. In terminology borrowed from Brian O’Doherty’s writing on the artist’s studio, we might call the individual elements that make up these works “residues” “para-creations” or “footnotes to the departed painting.” Or in this case, of course, the departed drawing.[xi]

Say that it was standing there that I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.   –Adam Gordon, the protagonist in 10:04: A Novel[xii]

The realization that the most hospitable place to create work is in the space that one occupies daily can be nothing short of revelatory. While Allen’s professional title is officially Founding Director of Sculpture, she works fluidly across the campus art studios at Dominican University, taking advantage of her access to a large, laboratory-like studio just steps from kilns and enlargers. By engaging her students as studio assistants, her studio has become as pedagogical as it is creative. In a body of work from 2012, odd objects such as glass tubes sourced from the college’s decades old facilities appeared in her mixed media clay combine sculptures. For this exhibition, she returned to the realm of the photographic after nearly a decade, by placing sculptures on an enlarger to create entropic photograms. Some drawings in the exhibition began as her children’s colorful, rambunctious scribbles in crayon. Organic matter from her garden is a primary material.

As if to animate the artist’s humming, generative environs, the work in Graft (and other recent work) is contingent and alive, with a constantly evolving relationship to light and space. The performance of each object transforms as it moves from the sunlit studio to the warm tungsten glow of a white cube. Some recent works are specifically indoor/outdoor, with surfaces that react to the sun’s rays and change over time. Lattice and Tension, a nearly transparent work makes one think about the nature of the picture plane as a combust-able, weathered surface in the service of marks, gestures, infiltrations, gashes, and fissures.

Many scholars have asserted that the “biennial” aesthetic of transnational nomadism has most currency in contemporary art—as evidenced through ubiquitous reproductions of global markets, luxury goods, or “placeless” airports for consumption by the one percent art world glitterati who “jet around constantly.”[xiii]  Allen’s work is, conversely, characterized by the granular, humanist aesthetic of work and life, and by a durable ethic native to artists who moonlight as protoscientists. Meaningful as a lived and exploratory practice, such work speaks intimately to the enviable, difficult, amazing dissolution of art into life. And if it is to be considered within the context of a globalizing art world, Allen offers us a brand of world picturing more connected to the “passing present”[xiv] of the global anthropocene than that of the global marketplace. Kind of like the precocious protagonist in 10:04: A Novel, excerpted above, Allen’s work “flickers” between her own fictions and nonfictions—the real stuff of classrooms, gardens, the home, and the studio.

Bulbous, cell-like spheres, circular voids and deep crevices appear with regularity in Allen’s work—these forms—along with those generated from flowers or plant matter—underscore the cyclical nature of making, and allude to biological reproduction, or “the life-giving body as document, and its inherent possibilities and physical and psychological limitations.”[xv] From process to form, because Allen’s feminism is nuanced and androgynous—and irreducible to binary or biology—it gently resists the “too easy” gendered language that plagues an art world that continues to demonstrate essentialism alongside inexplicable and unrelenting male bias.

The artist’s creative act has a well-established rhetoric: the ecstatic insemination with an idea, the birth of the work, the difficulties of process, and the exhausted auteur. A peculiar sexual exchange is going on here. For this is the language of accouchement – the labor of the woman. What inverse sexism! The woman’s mode of reproduction is taken as the analogy of a male creation. Or is it, charitably, the attempt of a male to share in the mysterious process of birth from which he is excluded?[xvi]

Evidenced by efforts to rid the world of “inverse sexism” (and that which is sadly overt), in contemporary art, there has been a resurgence in feminism, fueled by exhibitions like Whack! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007). The new feminism is characterized locally in Chicago by initiatives such Tracers Book Club, Cultural Reproducers and The Feminist Art Project. The Graft Project taps into this momentous energy: by asking women to take part in the exhibition—some women, in fact, who have been involved in these initiatives—Allen and the curator are practicing an embedded, community-building brand of activism characterized by modeling and collectivity as opposed to didacticism. This is the model of the “curator as supporter,” one who is a “supporter, defender, and admirer of the works he or she puts in the show.”[xvii]  

In a recent interview Richard Tuttle said, “Look sensualizes experience, doesn’t it?”[xviii] If Allen’s work has a “look,” it is one that is profoundly experiential. It is irreducible to human language, unfolding for the viewer precariously as avenues for cognitive inquiry soaked in affect. But there is actually no answer to be found in Allen’s works, just a space for phenomenological associations and spectral play as the survivalist, interpretive eye moves across surfaces, penetrates fields, registers voids, or searches for signs of life. Ultimately the work of Allen’s work is that it registers itself into one’s psyche, gifting to the individual an opportunity to see the world a little differently.


-Jessica Cochran, October 2014

[i] Peter Eleey, “Sturtevant, 1924 – 2014,” as accessed in Artforum on October 14, 2014: https://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201407&id=47859

[ii] Artist statement, as accessed on October 14, 2014: http://www.kerlingallery.com/artists/isabel-nolan/selected-works

[iii] Press release, as accessed on October 14, 2014: http://65grand.com/huffman2_release.php

[iv] Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “The Stories They Need,” Frieze, October 2014, 204.

[v] Karsten Lund, exhibition essay for “Phantoms in the Dirt,” accessed October 17, 2014: http://www.mocp.org/pdf/exhibitions/phantoms-in-the-dirt/Phantoms_vs4_Final_DE.pdf

[vi] As articulated by Bordowitz

[vii] As written in the press release for Graft

[viii] As written in the press release for Graft

[ix] As written in the press release for Graft

[x] Allen conveyed this to me during a studio visit in October 2014

[xi] Brian O’Doherty, Studio and Cube (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007): 13

[xii] Ben Lerner, 10:04: A Novel (New York: Faber & Faber, 2014): 194

[xiii] Lane Relya, Today’s Art World

[xiv] Terry Smith asserted the “passing present” as a central theme in contemporary art in What is Contemporary Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)

[xv] Culled from Noelle Allen’s artist statement, October 2014

[xvi] Brian O’Doherty, Studio and Cube, 194

[xvii] Massimilio Gioni, “What I Did Last Summer,” The Exhibitionist, no. 9 (2014): 32

[xviii] Richard Tuttle, interview, Frieze, October 2014, 280