Stuart Allen ’s eponymous show this summer at Finesilver in San
Antonio featured eight kites made from simple materials. Allen creates his kites’ frameworks from fine woods, stainless steel and aluminum, covering them
with white sailcloth or leaving them exposed to emphasize their structural
forms. The objects seem pared down to function alone; there is nothing
decorative about them. The shapes of A Kite for
Flying in Air and A Kite for Flying in Water mirror each other except
that the air kite is made with sailcloth, and the water kite is made with an
aluminum material that has holes in it for the water to pass through. The
strings for flying them, mounted at the corners and midpoints of the
rectangular kites, were gathered neatly together and draped along the kites’ the
top corners. The kites brought
into the gallery setting a potential energy, an ability to sail in the air,
though much was required of the viewer to imagine this. In fact, there was
something frustrating about seeing the kites so still. Is their design and
potentiality enough reason to exhibit them in such a static environment?
I preferred the visual trickery of Bend, a simple ash and
cherry frame that had been set into the corner of the wall. This sculpture
provides evidence of the same mechanical skill Allen employs to make his kites,
but here it was used in an unexpected way. The viewer spent more time wondering
how exactly it was mounted and how it stayed that way, than imagining it
sailing through the air as a kite. In contrast to the kites, there is a
definite and immediate “wow” effect to Bend.
Yet all of Allen’s kites possess a quiet subtlety. It’s
clear that the artist, who studied kite making in Tokyo and the Daimon region
of Japan, has acquired an expertise in the field. His decision to merge the
kite form with the sculptural recalls the California Light and Space movement .
While Robert Irwin created installations out of scrim that were intended to
heighten the viewer’s awareness and experience of light, Allen’s kites provide
points of entry into the concept of flight. Allen uses them as tools to make
visual the often hidden movement of wind and water currents — to facilitate
careful observation of the atmosphere.
The photographic prints in the show directly relate to
Allen’s ideas about light and sky. Though he has a background in photography,
Allen rejects the traditional use of the camera to provide strictly
representational images and instead aspires to more conceptual representations
of color and light. For the Pixel
series, he makes prints by selecting a number of pixels from the sky portion of
a common snapshot, then blowing them up 1600%. The refined color that results
from this process allows for a focused and pure reading of the environment.
In the Lightmap series, he clips a screen, made of the same
white sailcloth he uses for his kites, onto his camera. With the camera’s
automatic light-balancing sensor disabled, Allen photographs light from a
single point, identified in the works’ titles by each site’s geographic
coordinates. Sunset – One Photograph Every Two Minutes/29 27’ 8” N ~ 98 conveys
a delightfully surprising variety of colors. Allen is intent on recording an
unmediated and pure representation of color as created by the sun, intervening
atmospheric particles and everything else that conspires to make the color of
the day. These were my favorite pieces. They felt like a gift, as if he had
done me this great favor of caring enough to record a beauty that is always
passing and ephemeral. As records of moments that technically cannot be
observed by the human eye, the Lightmaps works give the gift of awareness and
prompt a desire to look more carefully.
Wendy Atwell is an art historian currently living in San Antonio.