Artist: Allan West
Commentary by J. Scott Miller
Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature
My first reaction to Allen West’s screen painting is its sense of movement, of dynamic flow. The maroon brushstroke sweeps from top to bottom, from right to left then right again, nearly vanishes, then emerges once more to anchor the bottom of the screen. The powerful, dark figure—perhaps a mountain crag or a hawk’s wing—dominates the top half; yet, as our eye follows its path, the image softens and attenuates into the tranquil meander of a watercourse, active in contrast to the static, framing vegetation. The flat, stenciled peony flowers, borrowed from the Nihonga tradition, stand out all the more against the energetic swirling brushstroke that echoes traditional Japanese Zen paintings. White peonies sit placidly on top of the flowing dark lines, suggesting vegetation along a stream bank. The folded screen breaks up the uniform plane, lending depth to both its dynamic and restive components.
This tall vertical piece maintains a delicate balance of multiple tensions: light and darkness, flowers and water, movement and stasis, solid lines and flecks of paint. One of the most interesting dramatic effects is best observed up close: the maroon paint is peppered with small, dried bubbles that formed during the initial stroke of the broad horsehair brush. Another mirror of nature’s dynamism is the contrast between the serene peonies perched in mid-air and the lines of paint splatter that shoot down among them, like flecks of rain or lava, lending explosive drama to this otherwise still and reflective meditation upon nature.
West’s use of light is particularly intriguing. Using traditional Japanese screen painting techniques, he applies regular squares of gold leaf as the ground, on top of which he layers both abstract and concrete images, sprinkling and splashing powders and flecks of gold, silver, and paint to tease our sense of boundaries. He also takes advantage of the reflective nature of his media by applying new techniques of his own design that transform the metallic leaf sections into polychromatic abstracts, reminding us of both the changing color of leaves in autumn and of experiments with iridescent metal painting applied to glass in the American Art Deco period. There is something about the flow and placement of line on the screen that both echoes and transcends Art Nouveau, itself inspired in part by the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints and objets d’art into Europe in the 19th century. One could describe this screen, created by an American living in Tokyo, as a kind of reverse japonisme, or Whistler transposed: an artist using traditional Japanese materials, formats, and motifs in a Western abstract manner.