Friday, October 16, 2009

Live and in Color : Caroline Allen

In our dining room is a painting by California painter Caroline Allen. It is a large landscape, of green hills and lush foliage and blue sky with white clouds. But the greens aren't just greens--they're bright and brilliant, and the browns are rich, and the whites are tinged with lavender, and there is this lovely sense of the painter as one who sees the world in this particular way, a way of seeing that encompasses light and energy and movement and color with a vivacious and feminine sensibility. This painting makes my life better every day.

I first knew Caroline Allen as a writer of fiction (wonderful fiction, with vivid characters described with wit and thoughtfulness) at the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara, where she continues to teach. What I didn't know at the time was that Ms. Allen had been an art major at Art Center in Pasadena before enrolling in Creative Studies as a lit major. She continued writing and studying literature (and then teaching) and painting, but the painting became almost a compulsion when her mother died, though her writing was temporarily interrupted. Ms. Allen had wanted to write about her mother even before her death, but then when her mother died, she lost the ability to think in words for a time--but she was able to paint. And painting was such a pleasure, and it wasn't really about mourning, it was a joy, and some of the joy seemed to be the understanding that she really was a painter, that painting wasn't just something she did, it was part of who she was.

And so she painted pictures of her mother, who was and still is mysterious to her, painting from old photographs, and then Ms. Allen would alter the images in some way. There was one, a black and white photo that had been taken in daylight, of her mother standing in front of a large bush, holding her as a baby, that Ms. Allen painted as a kind of ghost image or dream, of this mysterious woman wearing a scarf around her hair, and holding a baby in front of a dark bush under a purple sky.

Ms. Allen and her husband (photographer Bob DeBris) were then living in an artists' community in Santa Barbara, where it seemed natural to paint. For 7 years, she painted every free day. After taking a class with Michael Drury, it felt natural to do landscape painting; it felt natural to go outside and paint what she saw. Not only natural, but--again--a pleasure. Which takes us back to the paintings--in the immortal words of Aristotle, "Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work." (Or, as Rollo May says, "Joy, rather than happiness, is the goal of life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings.")

Here is "Late Summer at CaƱada Larga":

When Ms. Allen was painting these landscapes, she would paint with her friend, Todd Anderson, and she felt that landscape painting was this kind of macho venture, to pack up her painting kit and dress in old, paint-splattered clothes and brave the heat and the wind and the cold, standing up for hours out on country roads. And yet, though there were these seemingly masculine elements to the process, the paintings have a distinct feminine quality.

Caroline Allen's landscapes and urbanscapes are immediately recognizable as pure California in spirit and scene--the gold hills in central California, the bungalows and palm trees of a beach town. There's a naturalness to them, without the strict adherence to a certain view that sometimes flattens some of the life out of realistic painting. In Ms. Allen's paintings, you never think you are looking at a photograph, nor do you wonder where the artist is. The view is clearly and beautifully shaped through the lens of another's mind and imagination, and then crafted to add feeling and movement.

But even though the artist always has an unmistakable presence, that presence shifts its shape and intensity with the focus and subject of the work. Part of what interests me about Ms. Allen's work is that over the years, I've seen her landscapes, traditional still lifes, arranged still lifes, portraits of chihuahuas, portraits of people, more landscapes, and urbanscapes, and so I've seen this personality emerge more in some work and less in other work, or maybe it is more accurate to say that different pieces allow (and emphasize) different facets. The portraits of people are lovely, and have so much feeling, so much emotion, and yet still have all that beautiful color. The newer landscapes are evidence of exploring technique, of working on being "tight but loose"--allowing more looseness in the painting, letting paint drip, not drawing ahead of time, in order to be more aware of the medium, with strokes that are more gestural for a greater sense of movement and for the sensual presence of paint.

I asked Ms. Allen a question I usually do ask artists (because the answer is always interesting to me), about whether she sees the world differently from other people, and she said that she's not aware of it, but maybe her painting mind does. She does think that she finds beauty in things that others don't, and she does like gloomy subjects--even though her attempts at painting or writing about gloomy topics never come off as she intended, her subjects always do manage to find their way to the light.

Here is one of my favorites of the arranged still lifes, "Who Were These People?":

If you find yourself in that part of the world--if you've been to Ventura County, you know it is worth the trip, and if you haven't, you might put it on your list, and there are lots of wineries on the way, so you can create your own art and wine festival without subjecting yourself to ceramic frogs or clown paintings--you can see Ms. Allen's work in Ojai Celebrates Art II at the Ojai Valley Museum's annual juried art exhibit October 17-November 22, 2009.

To make an appointment to see Caroline Allen's paintings, please contact the artist at


Anna L. Conti said...

Leslie, this is a wonderful artist profile! Not only do you describe the work so well, but you really bring the artist to life for us.

And you bring up a couple of things about painting that rarely get articulated - the separation of verbal and visual ("she lost the ability to think in words for a time--but she was able to paint") and the thrill of seeing the commonplace through the eyes of someone who has mastered seeing.

I'm so glad you're writing for BAArtQuake. Thank you.

leslie said...

Anna, thank you! It really is a privilege to have this chance to think and write about art in this forum.

Boyd Lemon said...

Thanks Leslie for a wonderful piece about my friend.