On the third Sunday after visiting Tom Allen’s studio, the bright, somewhat ecclesiastical quarters of a fully-turreted, 1930’s châteauesque dwelling, I found his flowers. I was walking on a nondescript block of La Brea Ave, deep in conversation with a friend, when I turned to see a tree erupting in neon pink silk-floss. That this specimen would be here, on the street, was as surprising as the fact that were it not for Tom, I’d never look twice at them. Over the the past few years, flowers, many of them in direct proximity to his studio, have been Allen’s primary preoccupation. While his paintings suggest a naturalist bent in supplication over a rare specimen, he works instead from rather pedestrian photos, often gathered at night in an attention-drawing burst of flash. His paintings function, like their subjects, on a biological level, their rapturous colors, brighter than any phone screen, brazenly offering sex. To use them as he has, in the service of this modified history of painting, evokes a mad carney (or casino owner), stacking flashing marquee into the periphery, their persuasive dominion total and unrelenting. But sexual selection dictates that a display like this must attract and imperil in equal measure. Sticking your neck out is, well, sticking your neck out. In that sense, his choice of subject highlights the artist’s fundamental, and profoundly human, bid for attention—good, bad, or otherwise. Allen’s 2014 painting, “Morning Glories,” puts its flora to another use entirely. In this picture, shown in LA for the first time, Allen’s flowers create a gloomy, Rousseau-ian backdrop. They evoke the strange but fairly typical scene (here, anyway) of movie-shoot day for night. Like a Highland Park streetcorner bathed in megawatt sun, it might be morning, or it might not.
Clumps of the titular flowers frame a bruised, queasy figure, eyeballs lit from demonic possession or cheap flash, a trio of moles (or are they lymph nodes?) eerily aglow. He wears the expression of a man resigned to the casual indignities of middle-age, his hair in the style of the lurid 1970’s film gels that might be lighting up his face. These were the colors, yes, of Dario Argento’s nightmares, but also of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s punks, Alan Rudolph’s LA drifters, Lina Wertmüller’s nazis, Andrzej Żuławski’s hysterics, Ken Russell’s vampires, and the boudoirs of exploiters like Tinto Brass, Russ Meyer, and Masaru Konuma. Where today’s video filters essentially point outside the frame, to, most commonly, the hand of a cynical manipulator, these melodramatic washes operated within, amplifying the emotional state of the actor. “Morning Glories” is, happily, more or less a window in the traditional sense. On the other side of that window is Allen, headphones pumping death metal, beautifully high on his own supply.