Natasha Conland

Jim Allen: 1922 to Today

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In the opening years of the 1970s, a very different kind of art became visible in Auckland City and its surrounds. These changes were emerging from students of sculpture, under the leadership of artist and teacher Jim Allen. From the moment of his 1960 arrival at Elam School of Fine Arts until his departure to Sydney in 1976, Jim Allen was a new kind of teacher of a new kind of sculpture. His presence was felt in the city as an artist, an educator and an organiser of a striking range of art and activities. In particular, during the period of 1969–76 Allen pushed the activity and thinking of this new generation of artists outside the art school and into urban and natural surrounds. Allen’s leadership drove experimentation and opportunities for large-scale encounters with art. Traditional sculptural form evolved into demonstrations of Conceptual art, performance, events, video and new technologies. Perhaps for the first time these advances were occurring on a par with global revolutions in art. In the work of this era, we see work with an intense engagement with the body, the concept of ‘earth’ before the internet age, and an often comic response to life of the time.

The depth of thought underpinning Allen’s own works is still largely unknown, despite valiant attempts to research and regain what was largely a decade of ephemeral practice. This month Jim Allen turns 100, and what better moment to reflect on the achievements of his lifetime. In 1969 Allen was already 47 years old when he returned to Elam after a long year of sabbatical travelling to the United Kingdom, Europe, United States of America and Mexico, a trip which was a catalyst for reflection on global changes happening in art practice and education. By 1969 he had an established and notable career as a sculptor, with several public works across New Zealand – Light Modulator, 1959 at Auckland City Art Gallery as well as commissions in the Bay of Plenty (Wairaka, 1961) and at John Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington, 1962.

Nonetheless ever the pragmatist, Allen knew by 1969 that things had to change substantively and radically if art was to connect with life. He had prior experience of this kind of self-reflexivity. After serving as a machine gunner in the war (1942–46) Allen resolved to train as an artist, eventually heading to the Royal College, London. Upon his return to New Zealand in 1952 he was guided by Gordon Tovey to work as a teacher in the Far North, where he spent much of the 1950s, influenced by educator Elwyn Richardson. An untrained teacher, Allen has said that, ‘It was only after my time at the Royal College, London, and visiting major art galleries and museums in Europe, that I came to realise that “teaching” could lead to gross inhibition and distort natural aptitudes’. Instead, he channeled imaginative play and free energy into the classroom, with much hands-on making. He remarked that ‘people have said I didn’t seem to teach anything, and this always pleases me. My effort went into creating a supportive environment, encouraging experiment and exploration, insisting that people find their own answer rather than providing them with one. I guess it was backdoor teaching, not leading from the front.’ However this modesty belies his activity behind the scenes working to enable visibility for artists even at their earliest stage, including, in 1954, bringing a truckload of sandstone and pumice sculptures by students from Kaitaia College down to Auckland City Art Gallery for exhibition during the directorate of Eric Westbrook.

Upon arriving at Elam in 1960, Allen provided space for a student-led approach that dissolved the hierarchy between teacher and student. But it was his observations during the 1968 sabbatical, a time of deep social unrest, that he furthered his approach to both education and his own art practice. In the words of Allen, ‘I had to formulate my teaching philosophy from the ground up.’ This meant ‘unlearning’ some of his academic training, reinforcing the use of new media, encouraging the breakdown of traditional artistic boundaries and, importantly, directing students outside the classroom. Visible in countless teaching notes in the Jim Allen Archive held at the E H McCormick Research Library – rewritten, chopped and collaged – is Allens’ working philosophy, not just for Elam’s Sculpture Department but also for his creative practice.  

Emphasising the pragmatism of his leadership, Allen built up the necessary resources and found the right people for the job. He became something of an innovator within and outside of the system, setting up an international teaching residency and liaising with partner organisations in the city. Visiting international artists including Adrian Hall, Kieran Lyons and Ti Parks were brought into Elam as lecturers, while New Zealanders abroad were encouraged to return and participate in the rejuvenation of the school. The dynamism in the Auckland art scene during this period drew artists and others to the city, setting up lasting conversations between here and elsewhere. In 1975 when Lucy Lippard, renowned American critic of conceptual art, visited Auckland City Art Gallery with artist Mel Bochner, she wrote that she was ‘rather condescendingly amazed to discover’ how well-informed New Zealand artists were about contemporary American art. Lippard and Bochner established relationships with Allen, Bruce Barber and art students that were based on openness and like-mindedness. Similarly, New Zealanders returning were drawn into the critical field at Elam and quickly found they had active roles to play: young critic Wystan Curnow, who returned from Rochester, New York in 1970, artist Billy Apple who returned for the first time in 1975 and younger artists Darcy Lange and Philip Dadson in 1971. Allen also continued to encourage connections with London-based New Zealand artists John Panting and Steven Furlonger.

In addition to organising exhibitions at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth (1971) and at Mildura in Victoria, Australia (1970, 1973), Allen instigated the International Sculpture Symposium in 1971 and its associated commissions. A number of these commissions can still be seen today, including Helen Escobar’s Signals, 1971 in Parnell and Michio Ihara’s Wind Tree, 1971 now located in Wynyard Quarter, Auckland. Allen also organised a swathe of public art events in Bledisloe Lane, including 3 Situations, 1971 and Influx, 1972. For 3 Situations he liaised with Auckland City Council and contractors to enable sculpture students Bruce Barber, David Brown and Maree Horner to produce their three works comprised of large simple geometric exteriors, built from contrasting materials, and interior spaces which were activated by passers-by and the daytime activities taking place. The following year Influx was staged on the same site. Its strengthened focus on performance and temporary art interventions – including among other things, live sheep, food, neon, a hay installation, closed-circuit televisions and a central hut from which artists localised the action and attracted participants – reflected the significant changes in artistic interests and preoccupations in just a year. These were Auckland’s equivalents for early biennial art activity.

<p>Bryony Dalefield, <em>View of Influx with Adrian Hall on Camera, Bledisloe Place,&nbsp;</em>1972, colour photograph on paper, transferred to digital file, original in Jim Allen Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Jim Allen, 2012</p>

Bryony Dalefield, View of Influx with Adrian Hall on Camera, Bledisloe Place, 1972, colour photograph on paper, transferred to digital file, original in Jim Allen Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Jim Allen, 2012

It wasn’t until the 1974 Auckland Festival Event Four Men in a Boat at the Auckland City Art Gallery that Allen’s own newly formulated practice returned to a public setting. Here Allen presented a three-part performance, Contact, alongside fellow artists, Bruce Barber, visiting lecturer Kieran Lyons and Philip Dadson. While it was not the first instance of the performance art activity that began to emerge from the Elam School of Fine Arts’ Sculpture Department, Four Men in a Boat was significant for its very public interface with the Auckland Festival and its location at Auckland City Art Gallery. By this time, Allen was adept at facilitating public art encounters, and while this project has typically been considered an externally organised event, Allen was in fact negotiating with the Gallery’s director for project resources while also configuring the media campaign.

The concept development of Contact began as early as 1969, progressing from his exhibition Small Worlds that year at Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland. Small Worlds was a breakthrough for Allen, whose work shifted objects and material concerns into matters of space, air, light and metaphor. For Contact – as the title implies – Allen’s concerns were with the spaces surrounding people – the ‘invisible bubble’ – and the sensory input and reaction in navigating that space. The performances perhaps operate as live enquiries into Allen’s thinking of the time. Alongside the artist, the audience experienced firsthand an investigation into human boundaries and, in this particular work, the body’s relationship with technology. Through the phasing of the performance Allen offered a liberation from form and constrictive matter, with the end act, Body Articulation/Imprint, comprising a free play of body and fluid material.

<p>Jim Allen, <em>Small Worlds: Space Plane, Environment No. 1 at Barry Lett Galleries</em>, 1969, colour photograph on paper, transferred to digital file, original in Jim Allen Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Jim Allen, 2012</p>

Jim Allen, Small Worlds: Space Plane, Environment No. 1 at Barry Lett Galleries, 1969, colour photograph on paper, transferred to digital file, original in Jim Allen Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Jim Allen, 2012

Three other works exemplify Allen’s practice and thinking of this period, and the leaps he had taken in the fifth decade of his life to condense ideas formed through the teaching and practice of art. Ideas for the solo performance Poetry for Chainsaws, 1974, first performed in Pavilion K at the Epsom showgrounds in December 1974, appear variously in notes and proposals from the early 1970s. Fragments of language (especially poetry), organic and industrial matter, were often contrasted in Allen’s work of the 1970s. In Poetry for Chainsaws the artist filled three chainsaws with petrol one by one, incrementally decreasing the volume of fuel added. Surrounded by the rumbling machines, the artist then read from Allan Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Howl’, 1954–5. When the chainsaws ceased, having run out of fuel, the performance concluded. Antagonising and exhausting each other, neither speech nor action outwitted the other; instead, the audience was left with the image of the artist attending to the job of making meaning in a hostile environment.'

The last work that Allen would make in New Zealand prior to his departure for Australia was O-AR II, 1975 for the Auckland City Art Gallery’s Project Programme 4. The second part of a work he had originally staged at Barry Lett Galleries in Auckland, O-AR II is an important moment in Allen’s practice. The years 1974–5 had been incredibly busy for Allen on multiple fronts – teaching, resourcing exhibitions, cultivating opportunities for new sculptural practices and making large-scale changes in his own work. The simple structure for O-AR II involved hanging two long sheets of industrial plastic – one clear, one black – from the ceiling. An installation with minimal intervention in the space, O-AR II brings focus to how materials can alter our experience and the psychology of viewing art. Rippling with movement and touch, the material incorporates the physical presence of visitors into the work, creating a highly tactile encounter that encouraged meditation on perception.

Newspaper Piece, 1976 was first realised in Adelaide, during Allen’s residency at the Experimental Art Foundation. However, it carried threads of interests that began with Contact, 1974. Newspaper Piece was realised through a deceptively simple set of actions: Allen read pages of a newspaper, screwed it up into a ball and then discarded it on the floor, only to then pick it up, open it, read it, and then discard again. This action was repeated until the newspaper’s words became illegible and the paper reduced to softened fibers. Allen was interested in the material transition of things, especially within the context of performance. In Newspaper Piece the medium – the newspaper – not only symbolises the transitory nature of current events; in being repeatedly balled up it transforms from being a hard material to something soft and malleable, or as Allen described, a ‘crackly paper to something which has the texture of a piece of cloth’.

<p>Unknown photographer,&nbsp;<em>Jim Allen,&nbsp;Newspaper Piece, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide</em>, 1976, black and white photograph on paper, transferred to digital file, original in Jim Allen Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Jim Allen, 2012</p>

Unknown photographer, Jim Allen, Newspaper Piece, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1976, black and white photograph on paper, transferred to digital file, original in Jim Allen Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Jim Allen, 2012

There are several typed sheets in Jim Allen’s papers. The artist has carefully preserved them, but the exact nature of their function and use is unclear. Written around 1973, they have headings like, ‘Untitled sculpture proposals’ ‘Encapsulated Environments’, ‘Inflatables’, ‘The Clothes Line’ and are all undated. They appear at once like ideas for future sculptural works, a space for the fermentation of ideas about art practice, but also possible teaching handouts or a style of poetic text which enables unexpected links to be made. The frequency with which these ideas, tropes and terms appear both in Jim Allen’s work and those of his group of students and peers are indicative of the way in which concepts and approaches were frequently shared during this period. One of the distinct qualities of Allen’s approach to both teaching and collaboration was that ideas were seemingly transferable between artists without concerns towards singularity or ownership as such. A generous, innovative and tireless teacher, Allan would offer ideas or issue questions pertaining to his own work and use these as teaching tools. Inevitably, these ideas would seed students’ work and their art would in turn speak back to Allen’s.

When asking his students from this period about the significance of Allen’s impact it is often difficult to find concrete examples of why or how they felt he made such a dramatic difference to their own capability and the urban life around them. A common sentiment is simply that Allen let them determine their own definitions for sculptural practice of that time. There were those who fell away or outside this fold, and this in a sense was also allowed, so that life – its trials, tests and discord – could creep into practice. This in turn created a new set of expectations for art to be a place of exploration, its materiality newly defined. It’s hard to imagine an affecting experience that surpassed his wartime activity, or teaching in Northland, but I think his years at Elam allowed for a profound openness which was life changing for both this teacher and student.