Marla Allison's paintings captivate me.
Art that grabs me tends to initiate a dialogue about identity as a product of internal self and external place. It may also simultaneously or exclusively unleash my imagination, prompting me to ask what my tastes teach me about my self and my place, on the way to expanding my understanding of reality.
Allison's "Blue Innocence," for example, shows a little girl holding a birdcage in the shadow of a tree. She looks toward the horizon, which blends into the foreground, suggesting perhaps that time and place, measured in distance, are one.
The strong sense of place and tradition in Allison's work might be expected of a Native American from Laguna Pueblo, but Allison examines the scene through the modern lenses of Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, piecing it together from variously hued blue blocks.
"The more you look at something, the more it becomes broken up pieces of something. It's pixilated, in modern terms," she tells me over the phone. "But if you step back, it becomes a full form."
On her website, Allison describes such pieces as mosaic paintings that force viewers to put the squares back together, visually blending the edges "as a way of putting themselves and their past into it in the process."
My dialogue with Allison's work takes off with those words. When my mind goes back to my hometown in the Rust Belt—wondering still how that environment has shaped my understanding of reality—I tend to feel hopeless, unable to recall much more than suburbs cut by post-industrial decline.
Allison pulls subject matter from her "line of sight" or influential stories from the past, then applies the color separation she learned from Klee, adding her own hues, like silver, to his reds and browns, which in turn returns her to some of the traditional ways of the pueblo.
"Playing around with those ideas pushed me to reconnect with pottery design," she says, "taking geometric shapes, the broken pieces…and changing it into a pottery form."
While her work—which joins that of more than 130 other Native artists at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts' Winter Indian Market—describes life on the pueblo, the themes that interest her also seem to come from a deeper genetic knowledge. "If I'm driving home from the studio, and I see this giant elk on the side of the road—something of that magnitude—he's telling me, 'I need to be in a painting.'"
Even just the technical aspects of the elk as a figure in the dark—its dark neck and light body—send her back to the studio, excited to experiment with form and color. She wonders at the associations the mind makes with certain brush strokes. A stroke of color in one context might be a lightening bolt in the sky; in a different context, it might be a landscape feature.
"I try playing with everything I can," she says. "That's the excitement of being an artist—the chance to explore. If I don't like it, I don't show it to the public. I just try my best to make something exploratory and challenging."
This reminds me of something the Idaho author Kim Barnes told me once. She said, "In the action is grace."
If I interject this idea into my conversation with Allison's work, I might consider breaking my hometown into pieces—what hasn't already been disassembled by the automobile industry—to see where I fit in the spaces between.
Of course, that also means being willing to accept whatever I find out about myself. And I've been looking from a distance for so long that I'm not sure I want to get close enough to see the cracks anymore.
Winter Indian Market
10 am-7 pm Saturday, Nov. 26
10 am-4 pm Sunday, Nov. 27
Santa Fe Community Convention Center
201 W Marcy St.
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