Katherine K. Allen at the Academy Art Museum
Nature and art are entwined in “Meditation on Nature in Paint and Stitch,” Katherine Allen’s captivating exhibition on view at the Academy Art Museum through March 31. In an unusual hybrid method of working, this Easton artist stencils silhouettes of actual plants, outlines leaves with animated machine-stitching in gem-like colors, and makes seeds and blossoms from countless French knots and splashes of paint.
Drawing on her background in painting, sculpture, graphic design, and textiles, Allen has developed a unique art form, fusing painting, silkscreen and fiber arts. Working with lengths of canvas or silk, often layered to create translucency and shimmering effects, she paints abstract fields of color, then lays plants on top and screen-prints ink over them so that when she lifts the plants away, their silhouettes remain, reproducing the details of their leaves, stems and seed heads with photographic crispness, while revealing fragments of the painting that came before. She never knows exactly how it will look, and that’s the fun of it. It’s a kind of collaboration with nature in which tangles of grass and curving stalks of goldenrod mingle with brushstrokes and stitching.
Curator Anke Van Wagenberg describes Allen’s creative process in an illustrated booklet detailing her development and explaining her method of working. There’s also a display case containing some of her tools and materials, including some of the paint-encrusted leaves and grasses that Allen used for screen-printing. At noon on Friday, March 22, Allen will give a talk and demonstration of her technique.
Allen has been in love with nature since childhood, and she spends a lot of time outdoors, gardening, kayaking, and gathering the plants she will stencil into her works. There’s a curious parallel between her interest in ecology, the science of the interdependence of organisms with one another and their environment, and the artist’s awareness that the space around objects is just as important as the objects themselves. For Allen, the background or “negative space” must be just as alive as the plants themselves.
In “Blue Moon,” an ivory white full moon rises in the golden sky behind the dancing forms of shadowed clumps of tall grass and falling oak leaves. The sky is negative space where ghosts of underpainting can be glimpsed through the slightly translucent paint. In a fascinating visual twist, the shapes of the plants are another version of negative space where the underpainting is revealed directly as colorful washes, brushstrokes and traces of other plant silhouettes. You’re seeing many layers at once, and they seem to shift back and forth, like multiple layers of memory.
The rectangular shape of Allen’s small silkscreen repeats across the sky and mimics the squares of gold leaf often burnished onto Japanese screens. This creates a subtle, casual grid suggesting a rhythmic order underpinning the natural world. The use of metallic gold also encourages a feeling that this is a sacred moment, a split-second opening into a higher, more meditative view of the natural world. The more you look, the more you see, as Allen’s gentle shades of gold, purple, green and black disclose seemingly countless interconnected strata of activity.
In the “Four Seasons Suite,” she steps away from stenciled plant forms and uses only painted and sewn elements. Consequently, its four large canvases are fresh and direct, almost like sketches compared to the other works. Sparkling white dots of paint melt into the blue and black surface of “Four Seasons Suite – Winter” as stitches streak across the canvas. Spring plants creep and blossom up the surface of “Spring,” while yellow and orange paint and thread conjure the swirling heat of “Summer.” A lone bird perches on what might be a stalk of grass amid the stains and spritzes of red and green in “Fall.” The bird’s presence reinforces a sense of introspection but it’s also problematic. Painted in a different style from the rest of the canvas, it becomes the focus, stealing attention and energy away from the intricate splashes of color.
Birds can symbolize flight and freedom or be the messengers of change, but these ever-shifting aspects of nature are more successfully and effortlessly evoked in Allen’s spiraling clouds of stitches, French knots and spatters of paint. Calling to mind the flight of sunlit swarms of insects or clouds of pollen lifted into the wind, they bring the air alive and share equally in the dance of the leaves and grasses.
It’s fascinating to study these works and unravel Allen’s process of working. Her engaging balance of chance and skillful control, subtleties and boldness creates a joyful meditation on change and the shifting of seasons as stitches, paint and plant forms join in telling an energetic narrative of the deep interconnections of life on earth.
By Mary McCoy