More Than Meets the Eye: The Art of Stuart Allen
David S. Rubin
Curator of Contemporary Art, San Antonio Art Museum
It is not uncommon for an inquisitive mind to want to know more than meets the eye. Consider Leonardo da Vinci, for example. As much a scientist as he was an artist, he made exquisite drawings that reveal his discoveries about the physical attributes and movements of conditions of weather; or Benjamin Franklin, a noted political leader who, when he wasn’t founding America, followed his hunches and proved the existence of electricity by flying a kite in a rainstorm; and what about a lesser known but highly important figure of the early twentieth century, Franticek Kupka? Often cited as one of the first abstract artists, Kupka painted abstractions based on his observations of invisible interactions within physical space, such as the trajectory of a bouncing ball.
By the time he was eleven, Stuart Allen was stimulated into a similar mode of scientific inquiry, encouraged through both his indoor and outdoor recreational activities. In the small, enclosed interior space of a photography darkroom, the young Allen watched images appear on blank sheets of paper through the magic of chemistry. In the vastness of the outdoors, he raced sailboats and became fascinated by how varying states of wind and light affect the shape and color of the sails. Over time, such interests would guide his development as an artist and remain the primary issues within the art that he practices today.
The son of creative parents, an artist mother and a mechanically-inclined father, Allen received encouragement to think inventively early on, both at home and in school. An ‘A’ student and valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1989 to study architecture, a subject that continues to inform his work to this day. Nonetheless, he was spending the majority of his free time hanging out in the art department, so when a photography professor suggested that he consider transferring to the Kansas City Art Institute, Allen took the advice.
In 1991, Allen switched over and found an exciting program that introduced him to the work of artists who were pursuing ideas related to his childhood interests. While majoring in photography and video art, Allen read extensively and learned about Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, and Robert Irwin, all of whom make art that occurs outside of the traditional framework of painting or sculpture. Long, who is British, creates work that stems from the English tradition of the “daily constitutional walk.” His photographs document walking excursions in nature that often span days or even weeks, while his sculptures are constructed from stones relocated from far away quarries. Goldsworthy, an environmental artist who also hails from the United Kingdom, makes ephemeral works from natural elements. Like Long’s journeys, Goldworthy’s environmental projects are often documented photographically. Irwin, on the other hand, has held a longtime preoccupation with perception of light. One of the pioneering figures in the Southern California “Light and Space” movement of the 1970s, Irwin creates art that encourages a meditative process and heightens awareness of the light and space surrounding an object. His characteristic early works consist of cast acrylic disks, each mounted on a wall with carefully positioned lights directed towards it such that the final composition includes not only the disk, but the shadows produced on surrounding wall areas. More recent examples include room-sized installations where a space has been modified through the orchestrated placement of fabric scrims.
By the time Allen was a college senior, he was deeply immersed in thinking about how to use a camera as a tool for investigating the properties of light and space. During the same period, he became compulsively involved in the researching and building of kites which, like sails, yield to the forces of wind and sunlight as they are flown in the sky. Fusing both of these interests, Allen completed his coursework by photographing wind, clouds, and light. His did this, in part, by rigging a 35 millimeter camera to a kite and taking random photographs using a 50-foot electronic cable release.
In 1993, Allen moved to Davis, California, where he divided his time between directing the gallery at the community-oriented Davis Art Center and furthering his own creative investigations. For a new body of work conceived in the mid-1990s, Allen merged two of his biggest passions–photography and kites–by making kites from photographs that could function as flyable sculptures. For the sculptural work 9 Fall Skies (1996), the artist took photographs of the sky and then constructed kites from them. When flown, these sky simulations integrate with real sky, forming compositions in movement that Allen views simply as “wind studies.”1 In a related project, kites were fashioned from aerial survey photographs, so that, in flight, the compositions became mirrors of the ground below.
Allen next considered the problem of how to document photographically the movement of water. After an initial venture of floating silk streamers brought unsatisfactory results, Allen began thinking about time-lapse photography as a means for turning movement over time into a frozen image. He was familiar, of course, with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of empty vintage movie theaters with nothing more than white light on the screens, the light resulting from photographing an entire movie from beginning to end with one long exposure. Allen’s approach would be to use a flashlight in the way Sugimoto had used projected film. In Line Drawn by a Creek No. 1 (1997), a sinuous, curving line of white light was produced by placing a flashlight in a sealed Ziploc bag and allowing it to float down the creek during a several-minute time exposure. Viewing the resultant “light trail” as both a visual record of movement through time and space and a type of line drawing, Allen expanded on this concept over the next few years. After being selected for the geography-based Artists and Writers in Bioregional Residence program in 1997, he began documenting his own walks in nature, photographing at slow exposures his movements while holding a flashlight. As he recorded a range of sequences and body positions, the artist came to view each photographic light trail as “the geometry of (his) body in motion.”2
In 2002, Allen was invited to exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, where he embarked on a project with a group of professional dancers. Within an aesthetically rich backdrop of museum interior architecture (a parallel to Sugimoto’s theater settings), Allen photographed the dancers performing with 50-watt halogen lamps (of the artist’s own design) attached to their wrists, ankles, or shoulders. In the resulting photographs, collectively entitled Dance Lines, a waltz, a ballet, a Middle Eastern belly dance, a modern dance, a swing dance, and even a mosh-pit dance reenacted by the artist are each transformed into a photographic line drawing that Allen compares to “an EKG or a seismograph, a translation of a time-based event into a static object.”3
Concurrent with his explorations in photography, Allen continued to make sculptural kites from sailcloth, while also producing non-flying variants in the form of sculptures and installations. Following a well-received exhibition in San Francisco in 1998, Allen was invited to create a permanent installation at the United States Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. In what proved to be a defining moment, he created his most ambitious and complex work at the time. Faced with the challenge of tying his sculptural work to the Embassy’s existing architecture, Allen used steel cables to suspend six sculptures at different elevations. Each piece, a hybrid of a kite and sailboat sail, was constructed of stretched sailcloth attached to a wooden armature. Positioned at regular intervals throughout the space, the white sailcloth acts as a mediator of light and shadow. In the way that litmus paper reacts when exposed to various solutions, the sailcloth acts as a filter, subtly changing color as it captures and responds to light at different times of day. In keeping with his scientific view of the installation as a device for measuring, tracking, and filtering light, Allen titled it according to the geographic locations of the U.S. Government and the city hosting its Embassy: 38˚ 53' N / 77˚ 02' W ~ 45˚ 24' N / 75˚ 43' W refers to the specific latitudes and longitudes of Washington, D.C. and Ottawa.
In 2002, Allen had an opportunity to move to Mexico. After selling his house and placing most of his belongings in storage, he bought a sailboat and parked it at a marina in San Carlos, an area that Allen remembers as illuminated by exceptional sunlight. Freed for a time from responsibilities and armed with his computer and digital camera, he devoted his time to sailing and photographing the landscape. He also spent considerable hours online, thinking about the pixelated composition of web-based imagery. According to Allen, “We have come to accept tiny thumbnail images as acceptable carriers of information, yet these web-based images contain a miniscule amount of data.”4 As he toyed with the idea of reducing an image to pixels such that it is no longer readable and becomes devoid of content, he assembled a library of digital images, culled from the Internet as well as his own photos of Mexico, that he calls “pixel studies.” He would not decide what to do with them, however, until after he left Mexico.
Upon relocating to San Antonio in 2004, Allen began printing his pixel studies. He made a series of prints by dramatically enlarging small selections of pixels from a single photo taken in Mexico. As he perused the images in this evolving body of work, entitled Baja, the question he now asked himself about them was, “Do they still convey something about the space and location, or had they become nothing more than generic abstractions?”5 His conclusion is that they do, in fact, retain specific information about a subject. Similar abstractions taken from a photograph of Times Square, for example, render very different results. Additionally, these experiments led Allen to recognize the similarities between a camera and a sail or kite, in that all are mediators of light. In digital photography, the camera receives signals directly from light, which affects a CCD (charged coupling device) electronically and thereby determines the colors in the digital image. Allen explains, “By removing any concrete reference to the landscape, the character of the light itself, as recorded by the camera’s CCD chip, becomes the subject.”6
Invited in 2006 to create a new site-specific installation at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Allen saw an exciting opportunity to once again unite his sculptural and photographic investigations. The installation component, which occupies the area just below the ceiling of the Museum’s Great Hall, is named, as in his earlier installations, for its location: 29° 26' 14" N ~ 98° 28' 55" W. The accompanying exhibition of digital photographs, Mapping Daylight, reveals the latest development in his efforts to record ambient light through digital photography.
In planning the Great Hall installation, Allen’s primary concerns were how to respond to the particular characteristics of the architecture, while also taking into account the conditions of light within the space. The first issue is addressed in the structure and placement of nine bands of sailcloth, which are positioned at even intervals from the front to the back of the space and connected at the east end to the railing along the mezzanine level atop the stairs. By aligning the bands with the railing, Allen not only solved the problem of how to attach them without aesthetically conflicting with the stairs, but he also made it possible for viewers to observe the work from above and below. In thinking about the second issue, how to capture light effectively, Allen conceived the idea of twisting the bands in the middle. From an aesthetic vantage point, the twists bring a touch of elegant lyricism to the composition while, from a scientific perspective, they make it possible for the bands to respond to light from multiple directions: the vertical sections of each interact with light from the front and back areas of the space, while the horizontally positioned areas filter light entering from the skylights above. As a totality, the installation acts like a giant, rhythmic sundial, gently interacting with the subtly shifting changes of light and shadow throughout the course of a day.
Allen’s newest photographic series similarly provides data about the varying conditions of light at different times of day. Rather than document light within a designated interior, however, the investigation takes place out of doors. Using the same sailcloth from which he constructs his installations, Allen places a piece of the material over the camera lens, points it at the sun, and snaps a picture. He then repeats the procedure at different hours throughout the day. The resulting images take the form of studies in subtly varying shades of grey. To get a more complete reading of his findings, he joins vertical strips of each photograph together to form a composite, a visual record of how the color of light has shifted from dawn ‘til dusk.
In many respects, Allen’s latest digitally produced photographic studies recall Claude Monet’s late 19th-century paintings of Rouen Cathedral at different moments in time, in which an amalgam of thick Impressionist brushstrokes evoke differing conditions of light and atmosphere. The major difference, of course, is that Allen has eliminated any presence of a building, leaving only sunlight itself as his subject.
Taken together, 29° 26' 14" N ~ 98° 28' 55" W and the photographs that comprise Mapping Daylight bring attention to forms of consciousness that are often little noticed or completely overlooked. Although Allen’s methods stem from the intense scientific inquisitiveness that has directed his endeavors throughout most of his life, the end products of his efforts can lead to quiet, contemplative moments that occur when an insightful artist transforms the seemingly invisible into the visibly poetic.
1 - Stuart Allen, in conversation with David S. Rubin, San Antonio, Texas, February 1, 2007.
2 - Ibid.
3 - Ibid.
4 - Stuart Allen, in conversation with David S. Rubin, San Antonio, Texas, February 20, 2007.
5 - Ibid.
6 - Ibid.
- Originally published in the catalog 29° 26' 14" N ~ 98° 28' 55" W, San Antonio Art Museum, 2007.
No part of this essay maybe reproduced or reprinted without the permission of the author.
photos of the SAMA installation: click