Rene Pierre Allain at Littlejohn
Art in America , September 1996
by Alfred Corn

French-Canadian artist Rene Pierre Allain has lived in New York for more than a decade but his abstractions only began to attract notice here in the early '90's Allain started out as a sculptor, and the wail pieces in his recent show situate themselves in the still disputed territory between sculpture and painting. Nine of the show's 13 works consist of steel panels set in steel frames, several of the latter formed from rectangular tubing. The pieces might qualify as low-relief sculpture in an abstract mode, yet the enclosed panels do function as picture planes, with marks made by scoring and the application of a corrosive substance known in arms manufacture as "gun blue."

Port View no. 1 even veers toward representation - a panoramic impression of an unspecified landfall on some rocky shore, with lighthouse and a small overhanging cloud in the upper left corner. It looks like the plate for an etching; in fact, the figuration is sheer accident - the result of natural corrosion, rather than of brushed-on acid or of gouging with a burin. This work was atypical in the show, but it confirms the sense that Allain's picture planes are arenas for a species of draftsmanship, for the most part abstract, though sometimes suggestive of landscape.

Four of the works continue an earlier mode in Allain's oeuvre, consisting of panels of pigmented plaster built up in layers on a burlap ground, the whole encased in a semi-detached steel frame that leaves the burlap edges of the canvas,, visible. The imagery in these frescoes consists of vertical or horizontal stripes in muted colors against dark gray backgrounds, incidentally recalling the early work of Brice Marden or, perhaps, Sean Scully. But Allain's stripes refer to military decorations and ribbons, just as the steel frames of these pieces suggest armed-focus hardware. Allain's approach to these frames - severe and quasi-industrial - no doubt served as a stepping-stone to his later work, and the military reference is explicitly carried forward in the two of his steel panels t h a t he has labeled "shields." Even the works, industrially perfect facture suggest the inexorable efficiency of contemporary military technology.

Yet Allain's visual metaphors resist narrow reading. After all, terms taken from the military lexicon are used in a vast range of human pursuits - from medicine ("invasive" surgery, treatment "protocols") to art ("avant-garde," esthetic "engagement," "blockbuster" show). It is the demeanor of battle in its most general sense that these works invoke, and a mindset that approximates the brute irrefutability of steel.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Brant Publications, Inc