Thursday 25 October 2012

Jim Allen

Jim Allen's sculpture Polynesia is proving to be a popular artwork in the section of our collection exhibition Toi Aotearoa that affirms New Zealand's art from the period 1900 to 1965. It is not only because Polynesia is a rigorously realist sculpture but because the figure's ambitious scale and its sensuality. It is a beguiling sculpture which exudes a keen sense of life.

Polynesia is an important life-size sculpture from the period when Jim Allen was living in London. It was created as his submitted diploma work for the Royal College of Art. By employing the title Polynesia, Allen utilises a neo-romantic mirroring of a subject with its title, a feature commonly utilised by many artists of the period; such as Len Lye, George Woods, Russell Clark and Rita Angus.

The high finish that Jim has given to the ancaster limestone gives the nude figure a human quality all the more reinforced by the stylisation and articulation of her limbs. Like his teacher Frank Dobson's own figurative sculpture and drawing, there is a scrutinising focus upon expressing an erotic nature to the woman's form.

The figure does not result from any preparatory drawing; being in itself a direct stone carving which began at the front and then progressed to the rear of the figure. Ancaster stone is Middle Jurassic period oolitic limestone, quarried around Ancaster, Lincolnshire. This warm and fleshy material was one of Frank Dobson's and Henry Moore's own favourite British stones.

Together with Molly Macalister, Jim Allen is a key post World War II New Zealand sculptor. All of Jim's publicly commissioned work has been unfortunately destroyed. His commission for the Pakuranga Mall just disappeared. Polynesia is the artist's only major sculpture pre-1965 which is now extant.

The artist placed this sculpture on loan to The University of Auckland in 1952 and chose to gift it to the people of Auckland in 2007 as a permanent addition to this Gallery's collection. It has since become one of the public's favourite examples of New Zealand sculpture.

Jim Allen (William Robert Allen) was born in Wellington in 1922 and was enrolled at the Wellington Technical Institute from 1939 to 1940. After enlisting in the New Zealand Army, he travelled to Egypt and Italy and later studied sculpture at the Institute di Arte in Florence. Returning to New Zealand in 1946, he studied sculpture at the the University of Canterbury School of Fine Art under Francis Shurrock and graduated in 1948.
With the support of a New Zealand Art Society scholarship, Jim Allen continued studying at the Royal College of Art in London under the tutelage of Professor Frank Dobson. At the same time he worked part-time for the sculptor James Woodford. After returning to New Zealand during 1952, he gained a position within the arts and craft section of the Department of Education in Auckland, before working as a lecturer, then Professor of Sculpture at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland (1960 to 1977). (I am grateful to Kate McGahey for these biographical notes.)

From 1977 he became the distinguished Director of the Sydney College of the Arts. Working mainly in a non-figurative style, after 1969 he developed an interest in kinetic sculpture, performance art as well as environmental art working with both town planners and architects on city environs.

Internationally recognised as a major New Zealand artist, Jim Allen has exhibited extensively. His influence as an artist and teacher is widely regarded as exemplary. As both a mentor and art educator he is considered an emblematic teacher within this country's tertiary art community.

During the last Auckland Triennial, Jim presented a conversation with Simon Ingram that was a revelation to all were lucky enough to have attended. Jim confirmed how much his work has been about people and their relationships. Instead of being a postulation of theory, all of his art has been dedicated to the reality of human experience. This fact is not widely discussed in the the literature about his vocation as an artist.

In April 2007 Jim Allen was invested with an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Sydney in gratitude for his contribution to the art of Australia. He is also an Honorary Doctor of AIT University. Jim's contribution to contemporary art in New Zealand is both on-going and exemplary.

I am not a portrait photographer but I could not let the occasion of one of Jim's visits to the gallery go unpassed without taking a snapshot of him with his sculpture Polynesia.

Jim Allen
Polynesia 1952
Ancaster limestone
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
gift of the artist, 2007

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