Toward the Light

Paul Greenberg
Posted: Mar 19, 2008 12:01 AM
Toward the Light

We are all drawn toward home even if it may take a while for some of us to realize it.

There's something wrong with the young if they don't want to break out of their secure cocoon, their stifling family and school and little town and all their oh-so-dull surroundings, and strike out for the glamorous world just waiting to take them in - and how. Think of the prodigal son.

There's something wrong with the old if they don't ache for the old home place, and yearn to see those familiar faces once again. The lucky ones make it back someday, at least in spirit, and find themselves welcomed - again like the prodigal. Like wandering Jacob, they realize that this place was holy though they knew it not. Homo viator, Man the Voyager, is also man the homecomer.

Al Allen, artist and teacher, was not only one of the lucky ones but one of the talented ones. He was called home, as they say in these parts, at the age of 82; his memorial service was held at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he'd taught and painted for more than two decades.

He began his life's journey November 29, 1925, at Steele, Mo., at the noisy dawn of the automotive age. Indeed, his father was an automobile dealer in nearby Caruthersville. Back then, the Missouri boot heel was still a seemingly empty horizon bordering the Father of Waters, a silent expanse that might be broken only by an occasional gray shack.

But the scene was empty only to the unseeing eye. Inside some of those shacks, women would be quilting, following the geometric patterns passed down from generation to generation. But the urbanization - indeed, globalization - of Al Allen's world was unavoidable. The outside world kept impinging: The Allens would move soon enough to beckoning Memphis on the other side of The River, where he would be reared and his mother would work as a seamstress at the old Goldsmith's department store.

On his graduation from high school in 1944, he would enter the Navy and employ his talent as part of its Terrain Model Workshop. Some of his earliest works of art would be three-dimensional, pre-invasion models of Pacific islands like Iwo Jima.

Al Allen might have become a conventional artist and teacher. Indeed, he was - for a time. After the war, he started out as the usual abstract expressionist, winning grants and making the rounds of art departments across the country. But something happened on his way to mediocrity. He got off the main-traveled road. Maybe he was reacting to an avant-garde that had become the conventional. Maybe he just wanted to go home.

Whatever prompted Al Allen, he began driving around the rural South in the 1960s, camera in hand, snapping pictures, not of the picturesque but of the ordinary - or what those not blessed with his eye would think ordinary. He was looking for something beyond the outward scene - a feeling, a certain slant of light, maybe quilt-like patterns of geometric shapes. Maybe home.

He eventually found it, and so did the rest of us, in his large paintings of windows. Windows would become his hallmark, with their outward, classical calm and sense of mystery within. His flat planes of light were anything but flat or plain. They stirred memory, beckoned to something with all of us.

Al Allen described himself as a manipulator of shapes, but the narrative quality of his work is as undeniable as the light falling across his windows, which survive him. You'd have to be blind, or at least terribly sophisticated, which is much the same thing, not to give in to the poignancy that his work evokes.

Al Allen was able to catch time, freeze it in a frame, and so surmount it. Something is about to happen behind his windows, or has just happened. Or happened long ago yet still haunts. His windows invite us into some inaccessible place we can no longer visit except through imagination. The sight of them stirs the kind of remembering that comes before and lasts beyond knowing. They draw us into wordless memory; we yearn for its light, and to see as we once saw. And now Al Allen has been drawn toward home once again, and toward the light.