Imitation of Life: Sterling Allen at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts

Depending on how you draw distinctions, there are six objects on display in the gallery space of Fort Worth Contemporary Arts: three identical houses constructed from everyday items – reclaimed wood, video cassettes, Tupperware – and three paintings on an opposite wall. But don’t be fooled by the formality and all the empty space, Sterling Allen’s exhibition, “Housing Edition,” is surprisingly baroque. Where Allen, a member of the Austin-based art collective OK Mountain (with Nathan Green) gets you is in the details; wandering about the houses, a complex amalgamation of objects and items are discovered. A print of Barak Obama is hidden under the roof overhang. An electrical meter is reconstructed using Tupperware; a window flower box is made with a dresser drawer. Notice the videocassette shingling: on all three homes the positioning of the movie titles is exactly the same.

The homes face three paintings: schmaltzy, pastoral scenes that look like Thomas Kinkade oils with Allen’s readymade houses sitting in the English garden setting. As you move from left to right, the detail of the flowers, branches, animals, etc. is more defined, like three stills from a single video shot gradually coming into focus. Other objects in the paintings shift position ever so slightly, just enough to make you find incongruities as you would in a child’s picture matching game. 

A childlike sense pervades all this work, and not merely because the three structures in the gallery read initially as playhouses. They are constructed of cultural castaways that bear with them the weight of memory and subjective association. Album covers are used for different features – Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Herb Alpert as two sides of a pulley, Billie Joel as a mailbox – but each seems deliberately chosen, belonging both to an era that may relate to a the artist’s youth as well as to a sense of hyper-domesticated 1970s American culture. As with the paintings, nostalgia is set in play, used and abused, amped up and worked into other forms.

The initial impression is that these houses are conceptual constructs. Everything used to create them has a household function – or at least a place in a home – and yet each item is appropriated to some other end. It is a house constructed of house things that mimics functionality and yet stands abjectly useless. Their repetition, as in the paintings, brings the conceptual project into focus: Allen is preoccupied with readymades and methods of production – the triptych calling attention to self conscious replication.

And yet what is most enjoyable in Allen’s work is that he toys with these ideas of mass production and consumerism without allowing the work to degrade into statement making or posturing. Allen admonishes, yet embraces cultural debris, and depending on the viewer’s sensitivity or emotional associations with these materials, the experience of the house is energized. Are these re-appropriated objects standing in for the very materials that helped construct the confines of some youthful reality? Allen’s is a punning, humorous approach to a conceptual/political conceit that is at the same time personable and sensitive. His work both resists commodification while indulging in a nostalgic affection for the rubble of consumer goods. Here is where the rather hideous oil paintings inform the work as a whole, calling our attention to sentimental idealization.

It may be the personal reaction of this reviewer that the materials that make up these houses cull so many childhood associations. When viewed in this way the houses emerge as metaphoric spaces, abstracted recapitulations standing in as memories – as unlike real memories as videos cassettes are like roof shingles.