The Globe and Mail

Saturday, March 26, 2005

René Pierre Allain
at Drabinsky Gallery
122 Scollard St., Toronto

This exhibition of new paintings by this veteran Acadian painter, who has been living and working for a long time now in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a surprising and diverting change for an artist best known for his sombre, dramatic, elegantly severe modernist painting-constructions.

Always preferring, as the gallery's statement puts it, to construct his pieces rather than simply paint them, Allain's work has heretofore involved the rather exquisite, reductive wrangling of gun-metal-blue steel and planes of pigmented plaster, the restrained, constructivist steel frames presenting and supporting his smooth, imperturbable painted surfaces with a mute, formally authoritative brio that I've always found deeply affecting.

The heavy, satisfying steel supports are still there, as are the planes of pigment-imbued plaster that ride above or within them. But now, suddenly, there is colour, pattern and surface texture -- in careful abundance.

At first, the paintings seem merely biomorphic in design, with blobby, squeezy Arp-like or Miro-like meanderings of earthy creams, khakis, browns, brick reds, greys and black spreading across the pictures -- like curtain material from the 1950s. Then you realize the colours and patterns are carefully taken from systems of camouflage -- thus continuing Allain's own well-established tradition of ordering his palette according to the dictates of the colours and patterns derived from those of military insignia, medals, weapons and the like.

What is also new is Allain's permitting himself a raw kind of tactility in the paintings. Now, there is a roughness of surface, evidence of the artist's presence in the work, rubbing, blotting, and resulting patches of nap. What it comes to is a sudden sojourn in painterliness, in design, in immediacy -- all of it achieved without Allain's having to abandon his procedural strictures, his conceptual discipline.

© René Pierre Allain