Art in America: The Comet and the Hourglass: Theodora Allen at Blum & Poe

February 25, 2022

Leah Ollman

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Moments after I stepped into Blum & Poe, where Theodora Allen’s recent paintings are hanging, a woman entered and declared to her companion, “These are so pleasing.” Allen’s works do, indeed, give immediately and generously of their visual splendor. They deftly marry ostensibly opposing formal qualities—flatness and depth, extravagance and restraint, presence and absence—eliciting not only sensual pleasure but also an intellectual rush.

Syzygy is modest in scale compared to Vigil, her last show here in 2017, which sprawled brilliantly through a sequence of capacious galleries. This show feels appropriately-sized for the moment, however. Its assembly of five paintings, all made during the pandemic year of 2021, transforms its single room into an intimate, meditative chamber.

Born and based in Los Angeles, Allen uses a lexicon of familiar, legible symbols that come preloaded with resonance from their established roles in art history, mythology, alchemy, and heraldry. She combines and repurposes these elements—candle, serpent, sword, moon, moth, and more—with a twenty-first-century sense of entitlement and yet a refreshing lack of irony. Her symmetrical compositions and mirrored figures propose a harmonious visual order above or within the vast disorder we know as life. When Allen uses a symbol, it is an homage of sorts to the scholars, believers, and seekers across time who conceived schematic narratives to help us account for ourselves, our histories, our origins. Her paintings embody that same eternal hunger for ultimate knowledge and reflect back to us the archetypal tools of the search. She draws with earnest savvy upon everything from the visionary drive of William Blake to the romanticized retrospection of the Pre-Raphaelites and the spiritual modernism of Agnes Pelton, each source offering a distinct model for fusing the sensuous and the heady.

In three small works here (measuring roughly two feet tall), Allen paints a narrow band around the perimeter, a frame within the frame that serves as a boundary between the purplish-gray plane of the canvas’s outer rim and an indeterminate blue interior, dilute as faded denim. She gracefully incorporates the emblems of arrow, heart, star, and infinity sign into and around that slim, framing line so they perform as both ornaments and icons. The format of the paintings, with their shallow, decorative border, recalls early Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, an association that nudges the works—Struck, Origin, and The Amulet—toward the realm of sacred texts. The frontality and distilled clarity of these compositions further link them to the pictographic symbols of alchemy and tarot. By combining and recontextualizing emblems, Allen creates a general ambience of mystical significance; the terms of her shuffled glossary are largely uncoupled from their native grammars.

In the triptych Syzygy (Narcissus) and related painting Falling Star (Memento Mori), ravishingly sublime vertical panels more than six feet tall present stylized scenes of the cosmos in monochromatic indigo. Within each alluring field, a large diamond shape with a comet’s tail of luxuriant flame rises, falls, or hovers. Each fiery form contains, in the manner of a crystal ball, a pale, hazy image: an hourglass, sifting seconds; a scorpion resting on an upturned palm; a narcissus blossom bending, like its namesake, toward its own watery double.

Painted in thin layers of oil and wiped away between additions, these surfaces conjure atmospheres saturated with fog. The white weave of the prepared linen substrate remains conspicuous; it registers as a textural flickering, a luminosity from within. This insistent materiality coexists with a vaporous metaphysicality—a compelling enactment of one of many definitions of syzygy, a union of contradicting forces.

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