Notes on Wayne Allan's Sculpture

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Photo by Wayne Allan

J.S. Porter

Sculpture of the human form consists of the art of body reformation, an attempt at healing, the body remade by human hands. In remaking the body the sculptor remakes the soul; in making the body visible he makes the soul visible. When you look at the broken or constricted bodies of Wayne Allan’s figurative sculptures, you look into broken spirits.

They are not pictures of smug contentment or facile happiness. But they do not lie, either about themselves or about us, and for that reason there is a strange restorative power at their centre. They are who and where we are.

Sculpture, the poetry of the hands, dwells amongst us: what our hands can touch, what our hands have made. The sculptor, says Henry Moore, “wants to make a piece of reality — wants to make an actual thing.” The sculptor as mother. To create, the sculptor must destroy the original wood or stone until a new birth, a new form of energy, emerges. Allan takes away in order to add. He cuts to heal.

The tree is the first metaphor from nature; it is the thing which can be any thing: transitional, pliable, infinitely transformable. A single tree has within itself a boat, an angel, a ladder, a box, a staff, a Shaman, a Madonna, all of which Allan has bodied forth. The Tree of Life. All good wood sculpture remakes the Tree of Life, and connects the tree to the human. The tree, like us, has rings, limbs, roots, a heart; it grows; it breathes; it bleeds. Amphibiously, like us, it partakes of soil and air.

Wayne Allan summons the human form from the tree. He carves a one-winged figure cut off at the knees, his arm fused to the body, head tilted to one side, eyes staring out and away, as out of time and place as a monk in the Stock Exchange. He shapes stickmen and wooden figures with the wings of birds and angels. He gives the tree a face and a name.

Adams or Christs,
these are the first men or the last,
men of the embryo or the catacombs.
They look at us in horror.

Wayne Allan, a Mohawk and a Christian who lives in Dundas, Ontario with his partner Sheila, likes to retell Michelangelo’s anecdote. To know if a piece of sculpture is any good, you roll it down a hill. If it doesn’t break, it’s good. Allan makes good sculpture, mostly in wood: walnut, butternut, apple, bass and cedar. He is an artist because he believes himself to be one, because he practises his craft and surrenders to its discipline, and because he keeps in his head a dialogue with three thousand years of art history.

His wood works range from about twelve inches in height to a twelve-foot bird figure. They sometimes look like stone: hard, heavy, haunting presences. Out of the soft wood he fashions hard, lean, burnt-looking bodies, pre-Christian figures of anguish and longing. His stone works are fewer in number, and softer in texture. One particular stone work features closed hands (in anger? In desperation? In prayer?), and a horizontal face looking up (Allan’s faces frequently look up or away). It has the power and ambiguity of a poem.

From the life of the wood Wayne Allan sometimes fashions death, figures whose light has vanished. Stone-like in their solidity and weight, his early wood works consist of heads without bodies, bodies without arms, figures boxed and bound, figures in pain and in expectancy, their physicality palpable: teeth, clenched fists, nipples, ribs, testicles, burnt out or piercing eyes.

His early work transforms the Tree of Life into a cross.

agog

aghast

agape

These words inhabit Allan’s wood

bare

bound

boxed

crucified

The viewer has a sense from the expression and posture of the wood that worlds and visions, emotions and dreams, have come to an end: the losses have been legion. The wooden figures have been to Wounded Knee. They have been to Calvary.

When you enter Allan’s sculptural world you are first aware of the strangeness, and then of the sadness. Who are these wooden figures, kindred spirits to west-coast totems and Bill Reid’s carvings? Are they ahead of us or behind us, what was or what is to be, standing dreams of a lost Eden or totemic nightmares of the apocalypse coming? Whose anonymous hands carved them? Why are the figures so earthbound? Why do they dream of flight?

One figure’s big feet weld him to the ground; another’s handicap of a single wing makes flight, even imaginary flight, undreamable. And yet the figures often gaze heavenward. In the stillness and silence, they wait. And in their waiting they bear witness to the unbearable heaviness of being, the face behind the mask, the skull behind the face. Allan’s people are the beaten, the lost, the silent, the shocked; they have seen more than they can bear. He honours them; he remembers.

The wood is the body.

What is done to the wood is done to the body

             The wood is burnt, gouged, gored,

             stabbed, cracked, cleft

             The wood is stretched, tortured, shocked,

             shaved, pierced, scarred.

             

             The wood is the body.

What is done to the wood is done to the body.

And in Allan, what is done to the body is done to the soul.

Why does a sculptor make a box? Is it not to imagine an anti-world, to create a counter-reality? With a box the creator can make the world anew, put in what he likes, make a joke or “rebut / With dreams the rat race and the rut,” as Voznesensky puts it in his “Antiworlds.” A box is an ordered space, splinters of the world in miniature; the box shuts out and keeps in.

Allan’s early boxes, somewhat along the lines of Louise Nevelson’s work, though much more terrifying, contain heads or upper bodies without limbs. His recent biblical boxes, in contrast, introduce the colour and playfulness of a George Littlechild painting. They have a lightness about them; they revel, dance, joke, poke fun, make merry; they liberate. To make these “fun houses” Allan interposes plastic and metal with wood, the synthetic with the natural, the old with the new, pop art with folk art and folk art with religious icons.

The boxes keep the earth-sky tension of the standing sculptures, since he frequently has two tableaux in the boxes, a lower level and an upper level, playing off each other. For example, he may juxtapose a Christian scene on the lower level with a Buddhist scene on the upper level, meshing cultures, webbing spiritual traditions, cobbling icon and iconoclasm. In his Christian tableaux the Nativity, the Annunciation and the Crucifixion are favourite scenes. From the Old Testament Allan sports with Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the Whale, Jacob and the Ladder. He may have Buddha under the Bodhi on one level and the Bethlehem Barn on another. He may have Christ playing baseball above the Crucifixion, or a Mountie as the angel in the Annunciation, or Christ as a clown on the Road to Emmaus.

This gentle subversion results in incongruity — the viewer’s habitual vision is disoriented and dislocated as in a Rimbaud poem — but not, surprisingly, in sacrilege. Allan creates biblical box art to laugh at our high-minded seriousness. He adheres to Kierkegaard’s words throughout: “the more thoroughly and substantially a human being exists, the more he will discover the comical.”

Why does a sculptor make a ladder? To go higher, to see the beyond, to leave the earth and reach the sky, to link heaven and earth? The most functional of objects — what enables you to paint, to repair, to install — is made into the most aesthetic of objects, for Allan’s ladders are as elegant and smooth and dignified as his black Madonnas. The ladders honour both his biblical and native heritages.

Why does a sculptor make angels? To invoke a presence, to regret an absence, to give face to the invisible? Angels of mercy, avenging angels, Allan’s angels have all the faces and postures of his primitive men: they look tired, angry, stunned, lost, broken, patient, terror-struck and sometimes terrifying. “Every angel is terrifying,” says Rilke, and “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.”

Constricted bodies, limbless or incomplete in some way. Crushed spirits, at times defiant, at times defeated. Earthbound figures dreaming of flight. Elegant ladders. Shamans. Madonnas. Winged figures, of birds and androgynous angels. Biblical boxes. These form Allan’s spiritual cosmology. These are the signposts that mark his sculptural and spiritual journey within the traditions of native spirituality and Christian iconography. These are the poles — the Shaman and the Madonna — between which his work tensely swings.


  • Originally printed in Grail, volume 10, issue 4

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