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In his 1936 political essay titled “The Author as Producer”, Walter Benjamin dismisses the debate between form and content of an artwork by defining it a sterile academic method. At the time, the historical avant-gardes had just destroyed the established meaning of the word art in Europe and many intellectuals sought new roles for the renovated artist that would escape the past. Our age though, influenced by more recent post-modernist philosophies, seems indulgent to dusting off old categories and using them to interpret the contemporary. Here is our attempt to talk about the form and content of an artwork, one by young American artist Theodora Allen whose solo show at Blum & Poe Gallery in Los Angeles will end in the next days, convinced that this exercise will create a fruitful approach to explain why we believe her work is a very charming and inspiring one.
The painting in question is an oil on linen called Plot, No,4, which depicts a stringless guitar placed in an imaginative space made of flowers, plants, butterflies whose sides are fenced off by a rhombus and a square alternatively running on top of the each other.
Starting with the content, examining these natural, human and abstract subjects means trying to find the symbolism that stands behind them. Often when it comes to contemporary art, the artist is the prime source for interpretation and Allen has herself explained her interest in the passing of time, pictured by short life-span animals such as butterflies and moths and, we could add, the fleeting beauty of flowers. Allen goes on and explains the guitar as the human made object that positions us in nature, an instrument to understand it, which is however unplayable when its strings and tuning pegs are removed like in the one in question. At least since ancient Greece, guitars and string instruments have been symbol of intellect, expressed in the voice of the author (see for example the main role of violin in classic symphonies), a voice that like those of modern songwriters interprets the surrounding world. Allen’s muted guitar might mean a human struggle in the passing time of a decaying nature, a contemporary melancholia where no human presence seems necessary. At the same time, a rhombus encompasses the scene, the archaic diamond shape that has been interpreted as the symbol of unity in iconological studies and that here seems to be ambiguously working as counterpoint to the inner scene, creating a tension in the meaning.
It is now that form as opposed to content comes into play. Starting from the composition, the elements of the paintings appear confirming the conflict we have mentioned. The guitar is both in the middle and on the side of the picture, it is both behind and in front of the natural elements, it is included in the rhombus and it includes it at the same time. The rhombus itself is subordinate to the square while it hides it, making impossible to distinguish which of all the painting’s elements is really leading the rest. All the objects survive in an ambiguous space that offers little conclusion to the viewer, a space that allows two and three dimensionality to exist at the same time.
And yet the formal quality of Plot, No.4 is not limited to the composition of the image. The very technique — the way the image is materially made — is itself an allegory of what the content seems to mean. As Allen has previously explained, her process consists of a game between removing and holding on to remnants: “I build the paintings up slowly by applying thin layers of oil paint and then, using a soft cloth, I systematically remove what I’ve laid down. With each pass of the cloth, the weave of the linen becomes more pronounced, and traces of color are left behind. It’s a process that retains the traces of every decision—the material has a memory”.
The way of constructing the image, left exposed by the particular aesthetic result of the finished piece, coincidentally speaks about the time and intervention of the artist that however, just like the unplayed guitar, withdraws from the image by drawing neat and free-from-the-gestural figures. Besides, these figures fade from transparency to solidity, almost always remaining within a monochromatic spectrum, aesthetically resembling photographic matter such as cyanotypes or those ghost shapes that remain stuck in silkscreens. The disappearing presence of the artist, leaving us with a magical image-making process, is but a deception: the cold, scientific chemistry of photography is replaced with the human alchemy of painting.
Concluding this attempt to analyse an artwork using the perhaps worn out categories of form and content, we could say that Plot No.4 synthesises them both in the name of an ambiguous artist’s withdrawal. On one hand it is the quasi mystical symbolism of the painting’s subjects, on the other it is the illusory impression that these figures formed on their own.