Back to the Future

Jenepher Duncan

'I think the challenge at this point in time is, in fact, to revive the spiritual - and use it more in daily life. Micky Allan, 19891

Underlying the apparent diversity of Micky Allan's creative output over a decade and a half is a central core of consistent but constantly evolving creative beliefs.

Allan has always been interested in the way perceptual and conceptual components relate to the total, created visual experience of art. This is true even for her early painted photographic work of the seventies and was evident in her first solo exhibition, entitled the Live-In Show of 1978 which set out both the scope and conceptual mode of her creative ambitions. This installation/performance, described as 'an adventurous exposure of the self,2 consisted of a collection other small photographic series, with large, white chalk drawings on brown paper of gladioli flowers. Surrounded by these creative expressions, the artist went about her daily routine of eating, sleeping, reading, watching TV in the gallery, so that the viewer engaged with different processes: the interweaving of the artist's art and life, both past and present, ultimately getting the 'feel' of both the created and creative environment and perhaps even revising preconceptions about the experience of being in a gallery.

Allan's concentration on drawing and painting from 1984 was a natural progression from nearly a decade of hand-painted photographic work which began in 1974. At that time she was engaged in collective theatre production work at the Melbourne Pram Factory, then a centre for experimental and feminist theatre. She began to paint and draw over photographs of the performances and eventually exhibited the first contemporary Australian hand-coloured photographs at the University of Melbourne. She worked in series, using small to medium-sized photographs, recording people, places, processes - babies, children leaving school, men and women in 'the prime of life' and old age. At the time she saw photography 'as a form of social encounter' 3 and emphasized the importance of the exchange between the photographer and the photographed, to the extent that her portraits of citizens of a South Australian town called Elizabeth included the text of what was said by the photographed person during the encounter. With her penultimate photographic series, The Pavilion of Death, Dreams and Desire: the Family Room, (1982) the largest and most painterly of her photographic work, the fourteen life-size, full-length portraits of her family were positioned so that no single vantage point provided a whole view of the work. The viewer was deliberately obliged to move around the space to see each person fully so that, at each move, the sense of the whole shifted, emphasizing the fact that, both metaphorically and actually, the observer created the reality seen.4 No less significant was her own interaction with the printed photograph while hand-colouring it with paint and crayon, a process which appealed to her because of 'its painterly quality and its ability to render spiritedness and fluidity.' 5

Her experience of places like the CSR Refinery and Botany Bay in Sydney were documented to reveal the process of degeneration, counterpointing for instance the delicate detail of a wildflower with the gross coastal devastation of man-made pollution and throughout, juxtaposing images of air and water. In these series on places, she dissolved the boundaries of visual reality in order to re-create a full perceptual experience, one to be felt and explored - a transaction or a terrain for exchange between viewer and viewed. Such experience simulated her own various travels through local and foreign landscapes (particularly the East and India), the journey being a sustained, explicit theme of her photographic work, from the first 'documentary' account of My Trip (1976) to the hand-painted Landscapes and People on the Edges of Landscapes (1979) and Travelogue (1980). Such interest may well have been influenced by her own early childhood experience of living in a foreign country, Japan, between the ages 2 to 7, until 1950. The later Travels Without My Aunt (1986), a compilation/installation of drawings and paintings, is her most replete narrative of journey through personal, art historical and place references. In these, nothing is fixed, like a real voyage, the normal boundaries of style, composition and image constantly shift, impressions are fragmentary, the movement between the real and the felt, the concrete and the mystic, endlessly fluctuating.

Allan aspires to describe in her paintings 'the point where opposites collapse',6 to achieve moments of suspended equilibrium and reconciliation between opposing forces. During the latter part of the eighties, her paintings have sought to create a synthesis, a 'seamless connection between such things as the personal and the impersonal; the abstract and the real; the scientific and the esoteric; the poetic and the mundane.' 7 Thus the creative fabric of her paintings is all inclusive: of vastness and minuteness of scale; of contradictory systems and hierarchies; of macroscosmic and microscopic energies; of historical and personal references; of stasis and movement. It is a way, as she has described, of keeping 'that double perception going which...relates to certain aspects of eastern thought that says both are possible at once. Opposites at some point combine.' 8

Allan's pursuit of a 'complex simplicity' is based on her long-held belief that 'the ordinary is fantastic, complicated and very beautiful',9 a conviction which informed her early photographic work and which more recently has led to what might be termed a sense of spirituality in her paintings. If, as Micky Allan has noted, 'imagination' is the 'combining force' in her paintings,10 'fancy' in the nineteenth century sense of memory freed from the order of time and space, is their constructing principle. The one propels her creative process; the other, her associative one. In the series of hand-painted photographs that occupied her creative life during the seventies Allan grounded her imagination in their visual reality. In her later drawings and paintings, freed from the confines of photographic reality, her imagination has increasingly taken flight towards quite a different level of reality which set up vibrations of an 'other worldly' kind.

It was during her second trip overseas in 1983 to the south of France, a six month stay at the government-funded Australian studio near Vence, that she began a series of drawings and collages inspired by the light and sensuous atmosphere of the place. These works consolidated her move away from the photographic form, a move begun the year before during a trip to central Australia, and they capture her sense of the voluptuous energy of the place. She felt free at last to explore in paint an imaginary world, one entirely of her own creation.

A year later, she returned to France, this time on a government grant for residency at the Power Institute Studio in Paris. As always, she savoured the European cultural heritage and drew on her experiences of journeys to Spain, Florence, Venice, Naples, Pompeii, Tunisia and New York, to create a body of drawings and paintings (later exhibited as Travels Without My Aunt) which gave the 'feel', the atmosphere of these diverse terrains, and the sense of her own transit through and response to them. As she explained, 'I chose from all over because I felt all over, able to connect with anything, anywhere, should I choose.' 11 Wherever she travelled, she discovered instances in local art or architecture of potent combinations of small parts within large, unified spaces which deeply impressed her.

Since then, her work has been striving towards the creation of a form of non-materiality which still refers to representational elements. As with the earlier photographs, she worked in series, of both paintings and 'complementary' drawings. The first of these series concentrated on images and creatures of the sea, combined with sky motifs and microscopic forms, like computerized molecules, diagrams of interstellar gases and ice crystals, drawn from various source books as well as photographs of the water and sky around the Melbourne seaside suburb, St. Kilda, where she was then living. The concentration of these works of the sea/sky combination she saw as an extension of her earlier photographic series, for instance on Botany Bay. They also marked the beginning of her exploration of large-scale composition, which had been pre-empted by her experience of two years before working on set constructions for television programmes, where she had to reproduce in paint such exotica as a large ice crystal.

A series of large paintings followed in 1987, entitled Near and Far, Now and Then, which sought a balance between the geometric and formal properties of the paintings and the literal, descriptive symbols of religious principles, including mythological, tantric and alchemical references as well as diagrams of the Kruskai-Szekeres space-time model and Newton's sketches of prism experiments. These paintings concluded her retrospective exhibition at the Monash University Gallery, covering her entire career, which confirmed a new sense of scale for her.

Allan soon had the opportunity to put this new scale into practice, with her design for painting one of Melbourne's trams as part of a Victorian Government Arts programme. This included motifs from her recent paintings which again represented her creative convictions, including large geometric forms, flowers and five-point stars as well as footballers and swimmers. The project allowed her to literally create an imaginary space, another world, into which people could walk and savour the re-created environment.

She had two other opportunities to expand her exploration of scale and unified space in a collaborative installation in Sydney with artist Aleks Danko entitled Harvest, consisting of both large and small, mainly abstract works on canvas and transparent paper which followed an installation she called For Love of the Divine at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne at the end of 1989. This occasion provided her with the opportunity to create a sense of huge space in three small areas, instead of describing details within a large area, which had preoccupied her in her previous paintings. In this installation, at ACCA, the tension of the spaces were energized by the interplay of floor to ceiling drawings with the various textures of different papers together with panels of while silk taffeta. Both these large projects were deeply influenced by her second trip to India at the end of 1988, which fundamentally affected the tone of her work. Again, photographs taken of such sites as the landscape around the Taj Mahal, provided the initial record from which she would expand her inspiration. Her imagination would work to then translate and distill the presence and spirit of the place and indeed a detailed drawing of this landscape would be included in both these installation exhibitions.

Her subsequent paintings have continued to pursue through paint and composition, the energies and palpable presence of the non-physical realm, where vibrant, expansive surfaces are counterpointed by fine details of significant personal, historical and religious imagery. While their total effect is quite deliberately abstract, Allan's insistence on including representational elements is part of her wish to keep hold of the material world in her art. In Melbourne, Allan is not alone in this pursuit of an area which might be termed spiritual, but her recent work is most profoundly infused with her personal conviction that 'tuning the material to be able to hold the fulsomeness of the spiritual and then act in the world, is...the challenge of this day and age.' 12


1. Micky Allan quoted in 'A gift for other people's use', Jan Blensdorf, The Age, 15 December 1989

2. Memory Holloway, The Age, 6 June 1978

3. Suzanne Davies, 'Micky Allan - Photographer', Lip 1978-79, North Carlton, Melbourne, 19 79, p. 49

4. Cf., Micky Allan, Artist's Statement, exhibition catalogue. The Pavilion of Death, Dreams and Desire: The Family Room, The Rotunda, Adelaide Festival of Arts, 1982

5. Micky Allan, Artist's Statement, exhibition catalogue, Landscapes and People on the Edges of Landscapes, Link Exhibition, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1979

6. Micky Allan, Artist's Statement, exhibition catalogue, Recent Works, United Artists Gallery, Melbourne 1986

7. Micky Allan, Artist's Statement, for series Near And Far, Now And Then, exhibition catalogue, Micky Allan Perspective 1975-1987, Monash University Gallery, Melbourne, 1987

8. Micky Allan, Out of Asia, exhibition catalogue, Heide Park and Art Gallery, Melbourne 1990, p.12

9. Micky Allan, Artist's Statement, The Pavilion of Death, Dreams and Desire: The Family Room, op. cit.

10. Micky Allan, Artist's Statement, Travels Without My Aunt, in The Source, exhibition catalogue, Centre for the Arts Gallery, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 1986

11. Ibid.

12. Micky Allan, Out of Asia, op. cit.

Jenepher Duncan
Art from Australia - Eight Contemporary Views, Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency, 1990