Evoking Spirit: The Intuitive Transformations of Allan Wash

Written by: Peter Wiley

Certain timeless motifs that occur again and again in native cultures worldwide inform the art of Allan Wash, whose compelling acrylic paintings can be seen at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from October 26 through November 15. (Reception Thursday, November 1, from 6 to 8 PM.)

As a boy, during the notoriously cold winters of his native Minnesota, Wash dreamed of tropical climes and exotic cultures. Later, he traveled the world and became enamored of art and artifacts that, as he puts it, reflect "a pure, unadulterated vision." Although he holds an MFA from Minneapolis School of Art, and garnered over 160 awards in the course of a distinguished career as a graphic designer, as a fine artist Wash has been able to sidestep the pitfalls of sophistication and create paintings that unlike those of A.R. Penck and other "neo-expressionists" who reduce the primitive to a mere mannerism are refreshingly unbeholden to the trends and fashions of today. More in the manner of the original Expressionists, Wash draws energy from primal sources.

The influence of masks and totems comes across prominently in paintings such as "Triangle" and "Origins." In the former, the nearly monochromatic palette enhances the power of the angular figures. Central to the composition is a figure resembling a formidable female deity. She is flanked by mask-like faces and jagged shapes possibly derived from tribal designs. Yet the picture appears to present a subjective interpretation of indigenous themes, rather than specific aspects of a particular tribe or culture. It is the deliberate expression of a man with very evident grasp of the civilized traditions he has rejected on principle and the ability to combine them with more intuitive methods in a highly evocative synthesis of opposites. In "Origins," the forms are more rounded than those in "Triangle" and the painting's combination of visceral red and earthy brown hues, mediated by areas of blue, further enhances its sensuality. Again, a female figure dominates the composition as its central motif. Only here, as opposed to in the previous work, her flowing contours suggest a goddess of fertility. While the entire composition of another powerful acrylic on canvas is filled by a mask-like face possessed of a decidedly primitive power, the title suggests an emotion more prevalent in civilized cultures: "Ambivalence." Similarly, the acrylic painting that Wash calls "Red Dream" encompasses crosses, hearts, birds, fish, and other starkly simplified symbols; yet the figure occupying the center of the composition is not at all primitive-looking. Rather, it is more akin to Modigliani's sensual female nudes, with its elongated torso and warm red colorations. Indeed, its full-frontal pose and outspread arms bespeak a certain abandon that one rarely encounters amid the ritualistic patterns of primitive art. Similarly, the angular distortions of the Mexican street scene "Tijuana Heat" recall Tamayo, while the pictographic forms of "Majorca" are akin to the early semi-abstract works of Rothko and Gottlieb.

As all serious artists must no matter how respectful they may be of indigenous sources and no matter how much they may endeavor to emulate their immediacy Wash filters tribal iconography through a highly original modern sensibility, and thus frees it from its inherent superstitions, taboos, and aesthetic limitations. What he gives us, finally, is the spiritual power of such imagery, albeit translated into universal symbols that speak eloquently across cultural boundaries.

Image Credits: EVOLUTION BLUE - Acrylic on Canvas 54"x54"x1.5"

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