Artist Micky Allan is to have a retrospective exhibition in August; Ken Bolton looks at the development of her work


Ken Bolton

Micky Allan has spoken of imagination as 'the combining force' in her paintings. True of her recent paintings and drawings, it might also be one of the continuities in a career that runs right back through the 70s, a career which has comprised lengthy and significant contributions to Australian photography along the way, as well as fabulous drawing and painting.

But if this remark about imagination throws light on the paintings, the works in question serve, too, to give to those words particular meaning and accent: they come closer to naming something central to the value, excitement, and energy the paintings possess and so breathtakingly impart. The imagination in the paintings is one of inclusion: of immensity and smallness of scale; of contradictory systems and hierarchies, modes and 'worlds' entertained, and given temporary equivalence.

It is a capacity for inclusiveness and openness - not the imagination of system and overarching order, the bringing of tablets from the mount.

And 'force', as Allan uses it, refers not to constructive power, but to the imagination as an energy the artist can attune to, can tap. The paintings are anything but muscle-bound - a light and omnipresent singing energy, mercurial and phantasmic, rather than the titanic energy often associated with 'major' work. Yet major the recent works undeniably are - in look and effect and address.

The coming retrospective showing of Allan's work at the Monash University Gallery will be timely and, one would guess, very large. Micky Allan's output over the years has been high and in a great many media and passes through many phases and styles: photography - handcoloured, painted, and in 'documentary' style - portraiture, landscape and inner city; pastels, charcoal drawings; painting and collage.

Public perception of this artist has commonly trailed well behind the art world's perception of her and behind the current state of play in her work. Through this retrospective the larger public will be brought up to date. Virginia Coventry's recent book on our current photography, The Critical Distance, features, for example, that work with which Allan's name is still associated - handcoloured photography in series. Yet it is many years since Allan made these influential pieces. And, ironically, while she was producing this work it was often strongly resisted in the photographic world as somehow 'not photography'. Of course the artist was never particularly concerned that the work should be categorised correctly.

Now she has for some years been consistently working as a painter - the medium in which she began and never entirely abandoned. Allan commences her fourth year teaching painting at the Victorian College of the Arts. Curators and the major collectors have been consistently attentive, and her work in the 80s, even more than the photographic work that dominated her output in the 70s, finds its way quickly into the state galleries and the more prescient of the larger private collections. As a consequence Allan's recent exhibition at United Artists in St Kilda was very nearly sold out.

Many of Allan's later photographs were quite heavily painted. Their handling though is remarkably deft, especially in detail and nuance, possessing often the delicacy and caring justice of Bonnard or Vuillard say, even where the brush would seem very fully laden.

The large charcoals (shown in 1984 at Watters in Sydney) seem to have been the bridging works with which Allan moved fully back to painting. They mostly dispense with colour but deal in similar fictive imaginative themes to those in her work today - in them alien beings of benign and innocent disposition approach one, as if giving benediction, or flit together, the many species of them, in an hysterically happy ecstasy of greeting and 'difference'.

The paintings Micky Allan made in 1985 in Paris, beautiful and, at first, extremely various, are a prelude to her recent work. The Watters exhibition was titled Travels Without My Aunt and the catalogue spoke of eclecticism and quotation in relation to their themes of discovery and travel, search and expectation.

Travels Without My Aunt was both something of a prelude to and, for the audience, a preparation for the most recent Micky Allan exhibition at United Artists. The newer paintings attain a kind of full passionate flight from the various bases of the 'Travels' paintings. The latter, as well as being much more diverse in style and format, were also more obviously acculturated - alluding to, quoting and using, Chinoiserie, kitsch tastefulness (as in the beautiful I Clutch My Ideas); the romantic and sublime (used with great respect and solicitude while being joked with - Shipwreck for example and Detail of a Renaissance landscape).

The new works announce in a much less tentative, more full bodied way the thesis of those earlier painterly proposals. The paintings both intimate and lyrically assert this various and unfixed reality: an emotionally and imaginatively conceived unity of the tempestuous trees of a stormy St Kilda, of a tiny windblown cyclist, of near and far, and of those containing and supporting elements, sea and sky.

The delicacy of Allan's touch leads us in a pulse-quickening song through the overall dark of the paint surface into surprising depths and equivalences, a world of fluid universal interconnectedness. Most of the cultural relativity the Travels paintings dealt in have been dispensed with. The new work might stand as an exultant recapitulation of these earlier serious caprices.

The current retrospective puts this whole endeavour on display.

Ken Bolton,
This Australia, including Australia Arts, No. 10, 1987 and
Otis Rush No. 1, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1987