Theodora Allen’s inaugural show with Blum & Poe opens in L.A. on March 7.
Bill Powers: The last time we met you were on your way to a Joni Mitchell concert. She was also silhouetted in a painting at your M.F.A. show at UCLA last May.
Theodora Allen: It actually wasn’t a concert that night—just an event honoring her. I’ve loved her music for a long time. I was raised on it. But, yeah, the silhouetted figure from my thesis show—it’s from concert footage from the early ’70s. Her face is in profile, with head tilted, mouth slightly open, eyes cast downward. There’s a suggestion of emotion, but nothing about the look on her face is decisively Joni. There are a few profiles like this that I keep returning to. They’re unrelated images, but they share the same downcast eyes. It’s the despondency of the gaze that sets the tone for the rest of the work. These profiles, like the plants and other objects that inhabit my paintings, are both representations and analogues. There are references to ideas about transcendence, but for the most part it’s introspection, and in that regard the paintings take a decisively Humanist position.
BP: I love the fade-in/fade-out quality of your surfaces. How do you achieve that look and what do you find important about it?
TA: I build the paintings up slowly by applying thin layers of oil paint and then, using a soft cloth, I systematically remove what I’ve laid down. With each pass of the cloth, the weave of the linen becomes more pronounced, and traces of color are left behind. It’s a process that retains the traces of every decision—the material has a memory. It’s why the images in the paintings appear to be both forming and disappearing.
BP: You also had some stained-glass window sculptures in your M.F.A. show, but all the glass was clear.
TA: That’s right. I had these sealed glass boxes made using traditional stained-glass technique. The soldered seams that joined the glass together related back to the geometric elements that held together the painted compositions. The glass felt like the shell to the painting.
BP: Another hero of yours is William Blake. Tell us about him from your perspective.
TA: I’m drawn to the philosophical and mystical underpinnings in his work. Similar concerns are what interest me in the works of Odilon Redon and Hilma af Klint. And centuries later it’s coursing through the music of Judee Sill, and Gene Clark’s ‘No Other.’ Pathos as well.
BP: Your paintings were an inspiration for Hedi Slimane’s second women’s collection at Saint Laurent. Sometimes fashion and art don’t play well together.
TA: You know, I wasn’t nervous about that. Hedi and his design assistant Beth Houfek responded to the work in a way that felt genuine. It wasn’t in an “I like it because it’s beautiful” kind of way. I felt that they really got it. I admire Slimane’s headstrong approach with Saint Laurent. It’s uncompromising. It all felt right. In the year since they used my artwork for the invitation, they’ve collaborated with John Baldessari, Raymond Pettibon, and the estates of Robert Heinecken, Guy de Cointet, and Bruce Conner. I’m in great company.
BP: I loved a recent hourglass painting of yours I saw at Frieze London. Can you tell us how that piece came about?
TA: I’ve been thinking a lot about emblems of time. Markers. In the past I’ve used the metronome and the moth as symbols of this. Where the metronome’s count is infinite, and the moth’s existence is brief, the hourglass is reversible—it’s laced with hope.
BP: What’s your fascination with moths?
TA: Their internal navigation system directs them to fly toward the light, which often ends in flames.
BP: An Icarus of the natural world.
TA: Exactly. I think the moth holds some of the same ideological implications as the butterfly, like social metamorphosis and idealism, but specifically it relates to ideas about looking inward and the risk of being burned.
BP: You also have some guitar paintings but the instruments are all missing strings. Are they somehow referring to classic images of women playing lutes?
TA: The guitar is this perfect form. It’s symmetrical, like the hourglass, and like the heart symbol that appears in other paintings of mine. It’s feminine. But it’s also an instrument for personal expression, and for sorting through our experience of the natural world—for making sense of our place in it. But the guitars in these paintings lack the strings and the tuning pegs—the sound. I’m not thinking of them as broken, or forsaken. They were built that way: unplayable.