Contributed by Mary Shah / Jamie Allen and I initially met as colleagues at Alexandre Gallery last fall, and we quickly became fans of each other’s paintings. We sat down recently to discuss her residency at New York Studio School (NYSS) DUMBO Studio that began in August 2021 and is culminating this month with a solo exhibition of paintings and works on paper at the residency program’s gallery.
Mary Shah: Before we begin talking about the work in your current show, could you provide a little context and background about your residency at the NYSS DUMBO Studio and Gallery that led to this exhibition?
Jamie Allen: Well, I began studying at NYSS in Fall 2018, working towards my MFA degree until graduating in Spring 2020. With the assistance of generous scholarships, I was able to stay on for a “Post-Grad” year (2020-2021) in order to finish out the experience in person and, gratefully, not on Zoom. This eventually led into a residency at their DUMBO space [next door to Two Coats of Paint], which had primarily functioned as an extension of the sculpture department, as well as a residency space for one recent sculpture graduate per year. However, in recent years it seems to be shifting into a full-time residency space for 2-3 recent graduate alumni—painters now included. Upon moving in, the studios had been left with remnants from past sculpture residents, including scraps of wood and metal. I felt inclined to honor the legacy of this space; with these wood scraps at my disposal, I was leaning towards the direction of incorporating three-dimensional materials into my practice.
MS: Oh, that is fascinating. As long as I’ve known your work, collage and painting on paper has been a consistent and equally vital part of your practice and to then take that element of collage even further, or even more sculpturally, to collage with wood and paint — it is an amazing new direction. Would you paint the wood and then assemble the pieces or paint the pieces once they were assembled? And, also, I notice there is one example of this painted wooden collage in the show, titled Faded Flower Patterns of Memories. Do you have plans to work in this way in the future?
JA: Many of the wooden scraps appeared to be leftovers of whatever shape was intentionally removed. Though they were seconds, I found them beautiful with complete and personal identities—the shape came into existence by chance. They were reminiscent of the torn pieces of painted paper that are scattered around my studio, which are such a huge part of my collage process. Similarly to the way I’ll begin a collage, I initially jumped into arranging these wood scraps into its own composition without color as a consideration. It felt like a fresh, new process for me when considering the important role that color typically plays at the beginning stages of a collage.
MS: So you assembled the wood first, as a 3D support, considering that as its own composition before involving color and the painted composition?
JA: Yes. To eliminate that part gave way to more freedom in its sculptural composition— switching to the idea of what it could become, not what would become of it. So much of my practice is searching for new ways to begin a painting as well as finishing one. Beginning to paint on an object that already has its edges and boundaries set, presents a new space for me to respond to with the paint. I also found it quite satisfying to use the varied wood grains as a prominent component to the painting as well—it felt important to leave those bare pockets of wood, rather than treating it like a standard surface and painting it white. The natural movement within the grain gave life to each brushstroke to follow. Although only one of these wooden collages made it into the show, I have a handful of others that I’m excited to continue pushing.
MS: How does this new work relate, if at all, to the work you completed for your thesis show in 2020?
JA: It relates directly as a continuation of what I explored in my thesis, which was the idea of creating “portals” for myself— different ways to begin a painting. For example, in the painting Getting Lost Is A Fine Art, I began by collaging scraps of canvas directly onto the stretched canvas, and gessoing over everything. As it dried, many of the edges began to curl upwards, adding a sculptural element to the canvas that I hadn’t intended for, which then gave me something completely new to respond to.
MS: Ah! In a way, a precursor to painting on the 3D wood support.
JA: Exactly. I hadn’t really made that connection until now, but I find that so much of my work ends up connecting throughout time. I’m unaware of these relations during the process, but it always seems to become evident given some space. These moments keep my practice feeling fresh as I eventually see everything building upon itself and moving forward.
MS: It makes sense – there’s a physicality to collage and layering, whether you’re working with torn pieces of paper or assembling scraps of wood, or in this case, pieces of canvas… your visual language and investigation gravitates towards layers and textures. Did the works on paper in the show come before the paintings on canvas or were they made concurrently?
JA: I find the works on paper to be the heart of my practice—they function as underlying inspiration for many of the works on canvas. Collaging on paper has always been the most consistent practice in my studio—I rarely find myself in a creative block because these works are quick and easy ways for me to explore new ideas. I tend to move quicker with them because the need to mix paint isn’t necessary. I can jump between different materials and be more direct with my marks, whereas I tend to move a little slower and more consciously with the oil paintings.
MS: Are the collages made with paper that you painted previously and tore up? Are they previous paintings on paper? Or do you paint paper specific colors with the intent to then tear them up and reassemble?
JA: Yes to both. There’s no single way these painted papers come to exist. At times it’s intentional, but most often by chance. If I’m working from source material, then I’ll prepare more of a specific palette to pull from. I also cringe at the idea of wasting paint so every last bit is often spread on scraps of paper, creating new hues—beautiful neutrals that I wouldn’t have mixed otherwise. I’ve been doing this for 4 years now so I’ve built up a wide range of painted paper. Keeping them organized is a full-time job.
MS: Oh, I love that—so the collages are also an index to any number of past painting moments, a history of multiple palettes, and some collages are multiple collages built into one final piece, as noted specifically in the work, Not In Each Other’s Shadow. Has a collage on paper ever been the direct inspiration for a work on canvas?
JA: In so many ways, there will always be bits of the collages finding their way into the paintings. However, I hadn’t ever intended for the collages to be “studies” for the paintings, but one painting in particular, It’s Impossible As Always To Forget, Something That Hasn’t Happened Yet, began as a direct transcription of a 5 x 7 in. work on paper. It felt like an interesting thing for me to explore because in the act of replicating the collage, I was able to explore oil paint as a material with more emphasis on the scale of the brushstrokes and the thickness of paint. To recreate the feeling of this collage on such a larger scale (57 x 60 in.) using only oil paint was another way of beginning a painting that I hadn’t necessarily explored yet.
MS: Since you already had the composition resolved to the largest extent, you had more freedom or clarity on how to transpose each element on canvas—the parameters of what each “shape” would look like were set so you could build each element up within a boundary and not worry about any imbalance in the overall composition?
MS: Does this mean you foresee working more directly from collages on paper? Which work in the show feels like it embodies what will come next?
JA: Nothing is ever off the table in terms of everything we discussed, but I do feel particularly drawn to the painting Sleeping Eyelid of the Sky because it has elements of both intuitive painting, as well as a direct transcription of a work on paper, superimposed within the composition. It also feels the most unlike the rest of the work in the show and that’s something I want to further investigate.
MS: I think I see what you mean- the rectangular form at the top right almost has a trompe l’oeil feel, as if you affixed a paper element to the support even though it’s all painted.
JA: Yes, exactly. I think maintaining that ambiguity within my work is something that I strive for. It’s similar to the way in which a song can reveal different layers each time you listen to it; small details that weren’t initially heard can permit it to sound brand new each time. I want my paintings to function in a similar slow-burning manner. I consider that type of art to triumph over the kind that leaves you with nothing to left to discover in the end.
MS: That brings me to my next question. I personally use and see music as a collaborator in my work and I know music is equally important to you. Can you talk about the role of music in your work?
JA: Definitely. I find music to be both a comfort and inspiration in the studio, as it keeps me grounded and present while I work. I’ll often sing and dance along, especially when working on the larger canvases. The big paintings already require so much more physical engagement so I find that it connects me to the work on a deeper, more spiritual level. Studio is therapy for me, so it’s very important to set a particular “mood” when I’m working, and if I’m unable to achieve that headspace, it’s usually difficult for me to create in a way that feels genuine. If that ends up being the case I’ll engage in more monotonous tasks like studio organization or surface prepping. I’d rather not tempt fate and potentially ruin a painting.
MS: I relate completely to that and it reminds me of a quote by Chuck Close that I always act in rebellion against. He said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
JA: There’s a lot to unpack with that quote, but I find myself most bothered by the line “the best ideas come out of the process” because that implies everyone’s process should be the same. That there’s one way to make work, and that just couldn’t be further from the truth.
MS: … absolutely. And it also says something about the kind of work that person is making… Each artist has different concerns…
JA: But I admire his underlying point that you should just get to the studio and paint. Not all sessions are going to be winners, but sometimes dedicating yourself to showing up in the studio can lead to work that you hadn’t intended on making. And for me, music can oftentimes facilitate the flow and exploration during each session. It also inspires many, if not all, of the titles of my work. I remember each song or album I was listening to while the work was approaching completion, and it feels valid to honor that by naming the painting after its lyrics.
MS: Makes complete sense and I find myself doing the same thing. I wanted to ask you about your palette. In a recent studio visit, I remarked on a certain type of botanical meets cubist palette and thought of the work of Sonia Delaunay. Can you speak about your palette choices or what certain colors mean to you that you seem to work with regularly?
JA: Definitely. I think the comment about Sonia Delaunay is valid—many of the Russian artists of the early 20th century were my first exposure to abstraction and I think that will always have an impact on the way I approach painting and color. Additionally, I find endless inspiration in the color of the Indian Miniature paintings. I tend to keep visual records of color combinations within reach in the studio—Color Aid paper is an important tool in the studio and I find that it can also direct me in certain color decisions that I wouldn’t have reached otherwise.
MS: That makes a lot of sense, especially given the rich pigments used to make Color Aid. And it makes me think of a happy childhood memory of taking all the paint sample cards at a hardware store when I was little. Did you do that, too?
JA: For sure! I think my inclination to collect things as art material definitely goes way back into my childhood, and paint swatches are absolutely part of that.
MS: You mentioned earlier how you approached painting in 2020 as creating “portals” and I love that word. I wanted to talk to you a bit about your compositions in the current work, which all feel connected in the sense that they are somehow depicting or implying “interiors” and “exteriors”… there is a feeling like there is a window or a structure, and then something beyond that structure, even if it is purely abstract.
JA: While the paintings definitely begin in more of an intuitive manner, the way in which the space becomes articulated revolves around the idea of creating a structure, similar to a scaffold, that can then be built upon itself; playing with the edges of the rectangle and the way in which the forms can be considered both within and outside of the space. There’s an idea of framing within most of the compositions—rectilinear anchors at the corners, which maybe contributes to the feeling of a window and then the intuitive, more organic strokes that get layered on top create that sense of depth and space, as if they go beyond and recede in space.
MS: It will be very interesting to see what you do next because it seems like the newest works, as in Sleeping Eyelid of the Sky are dispensing with the corner anchor points and asserting their geometries in a more free form way—kind of the way tantric drawings can be composed. I look forward to what comes next. Any final thoughts as the future looms?
JA: I think that there’s so much more for me to explore within this framework, and I’ll continue the search at my new studio at Trestle this fall. A change of scenery tends to always influence a change in the work so I’m excited to see what will grow from this next chapter!
“Jamie Allen: Recent Work,” New York Studio School (NYSS) DUMBO Studio Gallery, 20 Jay Street, #307, by appointment. Through August 12, 2022. Please Jamie at email@example.com to schedule a visit.
About the author: Mary Shah is a painter and independent curator living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She is represented by Rick Wester Fine Art and is Director at Alexandre Gallery.