Alma Allen’s current exhibition (on view through August 13, 2021) features two groups of new bronzes—16 curving table-top forms and three monumental works installed in a lush, overgrown rooftop garden viewable only from Chelsea’s High Line. Each one is titled Not Yet Titled, a non-descriptor that leaves possibilities open for both the artist and viewers as they engage in dialogue with these very personal, and unique, sculptures.
Allen, who has also worked in wood and various stones, has his own foundry and processes. The surfaces of the indoor works appear creamy rather than hard and glittering, mirroring bits of the viewer’s body in curious ways. A snail-like spiral piece, for instance, revealed my reflection inside its knob-like eyes and elongated along its surface. I imagine Allen’s forms may be more enjoyable to touch and hold than most bronzes, even if the gold patina lends a rather uniform radiance and decorative gloss. It’s fun to think of them as ordinary and even humble things given a chance to glow and to celebrate how misshapen things can become precious objects and even special friends (somewhat like Klara, the solar-powered robot in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun).
Allen’s works radiate a rare touch-me quality that retains the intimacy of their making—hand-sculpted in wax or clay, worked and reworked until the forms gradually emerge. The objects have correspondences, particularly to the natural world, but cannot be classified; they are both figurative and abstract, organic and geometrical. A kitsch element exists alongside the funny/tender/real. One ribbon-like form rises and folds over itself at the top. A slender, amorphous form, with a very long neck, sports a wide-brimmed hat on top, which, from another angle, could also be a flying saucer. Another form makes a high, slender, uneven arc above an elegantly looping base. A hump-backed blob waves arms or tentacles, while the smooth trunk of something not unlike an elephant resembles an umbrella handle. Anthropomorphic, but not at all human-looking, this menagerie has a character all its own, suggestive of growth and movement.
A sense of becoming and scale are important aspects of Allen’s work. As former Museum of Arts and Design director Glenn Adamson has observed in a recent monograph about the artist (published by Rizzoli in 2020), “For all their impressive resolution and monumentality, Allen’s sculptures have the open-ended quality of living things. It is as if his forms have only recently taken up residence in this particular bit of tree or rock. They are still settling in.” In terms of scale, frequently what appears immense and voluptuous on the printed page turns out to be not much bigger than the page itself. Here, the three outdoor bronzes seem somehow both large and small. One evokes a muscular ribbon, another resembles a pumpkin or pod, and one recalls an insect or a flower or both. The forms interact well with the naturalized garden setting, as well with the view of a nearby Zaha Hadid building.
Nature and gentle humor are Allen’s forte. Whether he is working in bronze or directly in natural materials, his gift lies in transforming matter into odd, companionable shapes. Each has its own identity, yet is also part of the family.