“If it’s looking back at me, I know it’s done,” says Randy Allen, standing in the Highland Center for the Arts gallery, an array of his emotional abstract landscapes looking back at him and other viewers.
Sunflower yellow fields, stormy skies, that thin strip of brilliant orange light that bursts between the mountains and clouds at sunset – with color and bold brushstrokes, Allen incorporates an abundance of movement and light into his paintings. Combining a sense of spontaneity and connection with the landscape, his paintings are alive with intensity and intimacy.
“Feeling the Landscape,” Allen’s solo exhibition at the HCA, opened earlier this month and runs through September 11. The exhibition includes about 30 of Allen’s paintings, oil on birch plywood, most almost square, almost all new works from 2021-22.
In the HCA display case are several portrait sketches, drawings done at the Capitol Grounds Café a few years ago when Alan was mentoring students and they were practicing drawing people they saw there. The case also includes several paintings of mountain biking, one of Allen’s athletic pursuits.
“Feeling the Landscape” is Allen’s first exhibition since 1999. In recent years, carpentry has been his priority, but the interruption of the pandemic has brought him back to painting. With A Sense of the Landscape, viewers appreciated that he picked up his brushes again.
Allen, who now lives in Maple Corner, was born in Montpelier and grew up in Middlesex and Worcester. He has been drawing and painting since childhood, with dump trucks and gravel pits among his early favorite subjects. He joined the US Navy after high school and then attended art school in Boston. Andrew Wyeth, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bishoss were the initial influences.
Early in Allen’s creative career, he worked as a salaried artist, painting representational watercolors for a Boston gallery. For a commission, he painted 18 panels for a park carousel.
When Allen saw an exhibition of paintings by Wolff Kahn, Kahn’s color and his connections to the landscape changed Allen’s direction. He returned to Vermont and turned to outdoor painting. Back in Montpelier, he co-founded North Branch Studios in 1987.
Maureen O’Connor Burgess, curator of the HCA Gallery, has been drawn to Allen’s paintings since she first saw his work there more than three decades ago.
“I thought of him as an abstract landscape painter – his paintings are not always subject-specific and blossom from his bold use of color, light, texture and some form of the world around him,” Burgess said. “But I realize by hanging them, by seeing them together, that he really is an impressionist. His sometimes unmixed color and use of natural light – his visible brushwork would say so. His bare impressions of the house, or the barn, or the rower might say so. His landscapes are clearer from a distance.”
Allen paints in his studio, although his paintings have a plein air quality.
“His paintings embody this strong sense of the outdoors. He’s been to those places,” Burgess said. “He lives in these places. He carries them with him, and when he puts down a brush, paints, applies a surface, his intuition takes over, when perhaps memory is not enough, and soon, seeing these paintings, you realize that you were there too. You know that emerald green next to that deeper pine, under that gorgeous blue, or that deep unforgettable gold, shimmering under the deeper shade of purple. You love that red photo, perfectly placed, reminding you that something is changing. You remember that fog when you were rowing early one morning. Randy Allen’s landscapes evoke embodied experience.”
When he returned to painting in 2020, Allen explained, it took some time to get back to the work that spoke to him. He tried to work with a larger format, but felt that they lacked spontaneity and cohesion.
“I like the smaller ones because they’re more like thoughts or impressions,” he said. “I like the square, too. It forces me to think about composition. A square, this is not a landscape. If it’s horizontal, it’s like a landscape.”
“It became more about movement and gesture,” Allen said. “It’s kind of like abstract expressionism, but I have to connect it to a landscape for it to mean something to me. I get lost if everything is abstract.
There are links to specific places in Allen’s work – groups of barns, the site of the Horns of the Moon – but he does not paint them literally.
“Sometimes they start quite literally, but then they don’t have any guts – and then I attack it quite vigorously,” he said.
“Abstraction in my paintings fascinates me,” Allen says in his artist statement. “I like to play with the emotional aspects of these scenes… The scene that emerges is a memory—an impression caught in the corner of my eye. I strive to portray that kind of rawness and strength in my work.”