© courtesy of The Approach, London


Phillip Allen (1967 – )


50 X 71 CM
Accession number


Phillip Allen’s paintings are borne out of a continuous practice of sketching. Working on on a small scale, on A5 paper, using felt pens, the sketches chart the inception and development of his abstract forms and arrangements. Typically, variations of particular formal arrangements will be pursued through a vast number of sketches, which are then developed in small series of paintings on board of differing sizes. The scale and media of the paintings identifies them as gallery-based work, and Allen speaks about the “paradox of painting” as the struggle played out within the traditional confines of the rectangular canvas. He likens the activity of painting to the Escher drawing of a staircase, which defies visual logic by playing with perspective so that staircases interlock in physically impossible ways. It is a hermetically closed field of endeavour, emphatically non-representational, which perpetually turns about itself to find new paths to explore.

The unrestrained enjoyment of paint as a material is at odds equally with the “cool” of much recent British painting, and with the almost phsychaedelic, geometric vistas which it frames. While with Katterfelto the mind strains to detect some reference to the outside world from which the structure might be abstracted – standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower and looking down through the interlacing metal struts, perhaps, or some infinitesimally magnified detail of DNA structure. Katterfelto, should you be wondering, was an itinerant performer, famous for a brief moment throughout Europe in the late 18th century. Essentially a quack doctor, who presented demonstrations of early microscopy and electricity as pseudo-magical phenoma, Gustavus Katterfelto was an illusionist who harnessed a small amount of science to spectacular effect. With Allen’s paintings, perceptual tension lies between the actual relief of the impastoed “frame” and the illusory depth, but actual flatness of the central area of the canvas, Both the handling of the paint, and the shallow perspectival depth of the motifs of these hallucinatory dream-scapes, bounce the viewer back to the flat surface of the canvas, confounded.

While there is clearly no external reference in Allen’s paintings, it would be redundant to think about his practice in terms of the purism which characterised abstraction in the early twentieth century. Purity, in Mondrian’s terms, was to be achieved through an absolute purging of all corporeality from his paintings. He used the term “illusion” to denote the way in which his planes of colour played as active a role in the composition as the black lines of the grid. Unlike Malevich’s Suprematism, in which white suggests a space in which pure forms are suspended, Mondrian’s planes of white give the illusion of having the same value as all other parts of the painting. The moral and philosophical climate which supported the search for absolutes, for purity and ideal forms in art, and in social life decayed as rapidly as the immaculate white surfaces of it’s architecture. Today’s glass and curtain-wall towers and malls have a high gloss surface which reflects the viewer back on themself, and denies vulnerability to time.

Supernova, British Council, London 2005