Thomas Allen is an artist who approaches art from a decisively original perspective. Using sociological theories and the input of perfect strangers, his detailed drawings are filled with dream-like landscapes and surrealist figures.
This year, he won the Cass Art Prize at The National Open Art Competition, landing himself a year's supply of art materials. Last year he won the Seaward Prize in The National Open Art Competition 2013, and he also received the Anthony J Lester Art Critic Award and recently the Arts Club Charitable Trust Award.
In January 2015, Thomas is carrying out a large-scale Contemporary Cave Painting project in the Rebecca Hossack Gallery on Charlotte Street, London. Interpreting the gallery as a 'contemporary cave' by darkening it with black-out paper, he will then solicit 'scribbles' from the members of the public, before reading these scribbles to gain insight into their unconscious minds. He will then work on the walls of the gallery to create an unusual and unique record of the area: a portrait of its mind.
Viewers can enter the cave for free throughout the whole of January.
Ahead of his engaging exhibition early next year, we asked Thomas about his current Contemporary Cave Paintings, his use of public ‘scribbles’ and the materials he uses to make up his mythical drawings.
You come from a background in Sociology with Economics – how did you end up pursuing art?
I’ve had a passion for art all along but I was encouraged by my parents to study Economics at degree level. I soon shifted over to a flexible combined honours degree that included Sociology, which I found far more interesting. The Sociological theories I learnt have subsequently fed into the concepts behind my artwork. It was only a matter of time before I chose to pursue art and, when graduation day rolled around, I took that step.
I think it’s important for the art world not to become entirely dominated by art-school graduates at the neglect of self-taught artists. There are commendable and even great artists who, for whatever reason, have slipped through the art-school net and trained themselves. Such individuals offer a unique perspective on art from outside the establishment, which gives the art world some balance.
Your Contemporary Cave Paintings use drawings obtained from the public. Can you talk about this interactive part of your work?
With my site-specific Contemporary Cave Painting projects, the aim is to create a representation of the collective unconscious of a given area. I draw inspiration from automatic drawings – or ‘scribbles’ – that I solicit from the public. Automatic drawing is a technique that the Surrealists used to give expression to the unconscious mind by freeing the hand of conscious inhibitions. So, the scribbles provided by the public give me some insight into their unconscious minds, which I then interpret and incorporate into my wall drawings. In this way, the final Contemporary Cave Painting stands as a reflection of the collective unconscious of those people.
One thing that I’ve been struck by is how totally unique people’s scribbles are. It’s like handwriting. And I can identify artistic styles in embryonic form – from the Matisse scribbles to the Kandinsky scrawls.
There is something of Picasso in the abstracted, cut-out figures in your drawings, but your landscapes also reflect those of Japanese art. Which major artists or movements most influence your work?
I’m sure there are a lot of unconscious influences in my work, such as the Japanese art you mentioned (as a teenager, I took an interest in Zen Buddhism and practiced the Japanese martial art of Aikido). But I’m captivated by the dreamy imagery of Gauguin. I appreciate Peter Doig and Chris Ofili’s works for their oneiric, mythological character, and Surrealism has been an important influence. I’m also indebted to the Dada and Fluxus movements for clearing the way for me to incorporate performance into my Contemporary Cave Painting projects.
What themes and messages do you hope to convey with your work?
My work stems from two central concepts: emergent phenomena and the life of the image. In short, emergent phenomena are the complex structures or systems that arise from the coming together of numerous simple elements. So, for example, when you put thousands of termites together, each one performing a straightforward task, their collective activity gives rise to an incredibly complex structure: a nest. Other examples include language, sand dunes and flocks of birds. I express this by bringing elements together into an ambiguous narrative and, with my Contemporary Cave Painting projects, in the way I solicit scribbles from individuals and amalgamate them to reflect their collective unconscious.
This connects with the second concept: the agency of the image. An image is more active than we usually recognise – it’s not so ‘inanimate’ as we assume. It plays an active role from conception, through creation to interpretation or final interaction. It has a life of its own in so far as it, in collaboration with the materials and myself, codetermines the final outcome. I’d like viewers to stop and dream before my work and, if they do so, the artwork will draw things up from their unconscious mind and present it to them. It’s like a conversation.
Can you talk a little about when you exhibited in The National Open Art Competition, and being awarded the Seaward Award?
The people running the National Open Art Competition have always been kind and helpful and I get the impression that they’re genuinely keen to support and propel artists as best they can. It’s also a great pleasure to be given the chance to exhibit in such prestigious venues as the Royal College of Art and the London Science Museum.
The piece I exhibited with them last year, An Imagined Loss, was a very detailed pen and ink drawing with a wash of watercolour in the background. For the fine drawing, I used Rotring pens, which are needle point fine.
I was very excited to be told that this piece had won a prize. In fact, they kept it a secret as to exactly which prize I’d won. So, I arrived on the opening night only to have the art critic, Anthony Lester, come up to me and spoil the surprise by congratulating me on winning the Seaward Prize! My piece was selected by the NOAC judges from all the works in the show (which were all eligible).
Your work uses a variety of drawing materials, including pen, ink and watercolour. What draws you to certain art materials?
I suppose those materials – pen, ink and watercolour – are simply what came to hand first and I began to develop my ideas through them. But I don’t limit myself to those materials. In the same way that the image plays an active role in the creative process, so does the medium. So, images and motifs and subject matter that I mightn’t have imagined using in my pen and ink drawings have started emerging in my latest line of work: large-scale charcoal and sanguine Contemporary Cave Paintings. I’ve also just finished a relatively large oil painting – oil paints have a great ‘meatiness’ to them, which I love.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working towards an exhibition with the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London next January. I’m going to turn the Charlotte Street venue into a contemporary cave for a month, collecting scribbles from people in the area. The public will be free to come into my ‘cave’ to watch as I cover the walls with imagery by the light of a handheld lamp – and perhaps they can provide a scribble too! There will be an accompanying solo exhibition of my work at her gallery on Conway Street.
Rebecca Hossack is also holding a ‘Year of the Horse’ exhibition at her Conway Street gallery in August, which will include a large Contemporary Cave Painting-style work of mine.
Applications for The National Open Art Competition 2014 have now closed, but keep an eye out to enter next year.
Visit Thomas Allen's website here.
You can visit the Rebecca Hossack gallery website here.
Image 1 - An Imagined Loss, Pen, Ink and Watercolour, 75 x 38cm
Image 4 - Fabrica, Brighton, Charcoal, Sanguine and Graphite, 380 x 150cm
Image 5 - Never Never Far Away Away, Oil Paint, 180 x7 5cm