2006 “Visceral intelligence” – review of Janine Allen exhibition at the KZNSA, Durban. ArtSA, Winter 2006.

Visceral intelligence – Janine Allen at the KZNSA, Durban


Allen’s shows consists of two series: the Figurine series – a variety of paintings and drawings of the woman as violated doll or mascot – and the Sickbed series, flowing from her ongoing engagement with illness and dying. (The women in Allen’s family are genetically prone to cancer, and she is constantly exposed to the isolation, stigma and denial surrounding AIDS through her university students and her work facilitating art education in rural schools).

Though the two series are very different, and both are internally heterogeneous, there are threads of form and content that run through the whole show.

What Janine Allen’s work is not, is pretty, peaceful, harmonious, tasteful, soothing, resigned, decorous, hedonistic, aestheticised or anaesthetised. The content revolves around pain, suffering, the violation of the (female) body – by illness, by the technology for diagnosing and treating illness, by patriarchy – and the suffering involved in being objectified as a patient or woman, as well as the battle to resist or endure this suffering.

So, disease, dis-ease, unease all around, contentwise. (The body as a site of dukkha, the Buddhist term translatable as suffering, frustration, unfulfilment). Is pleasure therefore absent?

No, there is immense pleasure here as well – pleasure in the transformation of this jarring, form-defying suffering into shape, colour, line, and into the textures of impasto, pencil, watercolours, patinated copper tiles. (Nietzsche: “We have art in order not to perish from the truth”). A savage pleasure, a savage beauty, linked to the fearless concentration with which paint is applied, face to face with the formless which is the womb of form – the paint itself becoming carnal, the sickbed a metaphor for the process of painting. Having foresworn pleasure in her anguished choice of content, this painter’s painter, this draughtsman’s draughtswoman, this markmaker par excellence embraces pleasure at the level of form.

Also pleasurable is the no-holds barred energy with which Allen addresses these dark contents. And the similar energy, often darkly comic, of the whacky female protagonists of the Figurine cycle, with their Medusan coiffures of writhing serpents, their screams of protest, their refusal to be pretty – not passive victims, these.

The sense of dukkha is less evident in the serene 3-D components of the Spiritscape installation (which also includes the painting The lead blanket). The clinically tiled rectangular blocks evoke life-sized sarcophagi, a morgue or a mausoleum. These blocks as well as the undulating blankets consisting of copper tesserae, richly variegated in their patina – shrouds which suggest the contours of an absent body – again display Allen’s fine sensitivity to materials, but I preferred the gut-wrenching paintings. However, there may be a rationale here: is it only in death, after the suffering body has ceased to be, that peace is to be found?

In conversation and in writing the producer of these primal images turns out to possess a fierce, theoretically sophisticated intelligence. She is highly articulate about her marginal position as a Free Stater (a place that produces only backward, narrative art, says the stereotype) and as a woman painting in a largely male tradition (shades of Ensor, Appel, German expressionism, Giacometti, Sutherland – but utterly fresh, without the staleness of the derivative – witness for instance the exquisitely painted heads in the Sickbed series). Perhaps the lack of glamour at the margins contributes to the power and honesty of her work.

These are rich, layered images that reward, and stand up to, repeated scrutiny.