René Pierre Allain at Stefan Stux
Art in America , April 2000  
by Tom McDonough
In his new steel "paintings," the New York-based Canadian Rene Pierre Allain continues to mine the lode he has been exploring for several years: the bas-relief, that rich hybrid of painting and sculpture. The 14 works (all 1999) in the somewhat crowded installation at Stefan Stux are constructed out of steel sheets which have been manipulated to form slanted, angled and curved surfaces that are contained within substantial metal frames. From a distance, the reliefs may appear to be governed by a strict bilateral symmetry, but closer inspection reveals a more complicated arrangement of planes. Oblique Carapace, for example, which at first seems to be composed of a large central panel flanked by two smaller identical panels, actually offers a dialogue between what are convex and concave plates at either end of the work.

This rather industrial esthetic is further moderated by Allain's painterly treatment of the steel, which receives a patina of corrosive gun blue, clear sealant and wax. The result is a refined surface of nuanced darkness, ranging from blacks and grays to flinty blues. A mottled field is particularly evident in Caustic Carapace. Thus the artist puts contradictory forces into play: simplicity and complication, the weight of steel and the atmospheric surface quality, the sculptural and the painterly.

These are hybrid art works in the tradition of Donald Judd's "specific objects." But unlike his Minimalist predecessor, Allain instills a particular emotional charge in his work, something sinister, akin to a creeping sense of dread. A strong hint is provided by the term "carapace," which appears in all the titles and underscores the works' resemblance to a protective covering or armor. Even without the verbal clue, these shadowy, heavy, almost overbearingly masculine works would suggest a world of weaponry and combat. One might say these paintings are as seductive as an automatic pistol: they exert, at least for this viewer, an uncomfortable attraction, occasion a guilty pleasure with their violent allure. The feeling may be similar to what was experienced by early viewers of Frank Stella's black paintings when they first encountered the severity and evocative titles (remember Die Fahne Hoch?) of those dark slabs.

It has taken a new generation of feminist art historians to remind us of the bellicose references in postwar American abstraction. Allain's Carapaces--like his earlier paintings, which were inspired by the abstract patterns of military insignia--engage knowingly with this history, positioning themselves as neither critique nor affirmation of such masculine biases, but implicating the viewer in their martial elegance.

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