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Alma Allen's Subtractive Practice

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Alma Allen sculpture. | Photo: Courtesy of Blum & Poe Archive.

In today's overheated art market, it sometimes feels like the career path for emerging artists in L.A. is as circumscribed as a doctor or lawyer: MFA from CalArts (or UCLA, or Art Center, or USC); participation in a gallery's group show while still in school; gallery representation by graduation. The art-industrial complex thrives on discovering new talent, even if the path has become increasingly dogmatic. Within this structure, it's harder and harder for a self-taught artist to break through.

Enter artist Alma Allen, an overnight sensation, 25 years in the making. A self-taught sculptor, Allen's first major solo exhibition opened recently at Blum & Poe in Culver City. The show features Allen's large-scale biomorphic sculptures, which were recently featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, a milestone for an artist who ran away from home in Utah at 16 and dropped out of high school.

Allen works primarily in natural materials such as wood, stone, and bronze. "I like materials that are trouble, that break and crack and are surprising," explains Allen. While Allen has occasionally worked with clay, he prefers materials that are more difficult to work with. "With clay I would never know when it was finished since you can always add back into it. I never knew when to stop."

Alma Allen, Installation view, 2015, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles | Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe
Alma Allen, Installation view, 2015, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.   
Alma Allen, Installation view, 2015, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles | Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe
Alma Allen, Installation view, 2015, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.
Alma Allen, Installation view, 2015, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles | Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe
Alma Allen, Installation view, 2015, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.

In contrast, Allen prefers to carve materials, a subtractive process that doesn't allow him to go backwards. Serendipity and chance play a role in his process. He embraces the random effects nature sometimes imposes on his work. "It becomes a collaboration with the material," says Allen.

Despite his very recent entry into the art world establishment, Allen has had a loyal following of tastemakers since his early days in New York, including fashion designer Todd Oldham, jewelry designer Ted Mueling, and hotelier Peter Morton. Prior to his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, Allen sold his pieces directly to collectors, bypassing conventional gallery representation for two decades.

After leaving home while still a teenager, Allen led an itinerant life, living in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Portland, among other places, as he taught himself how to hand carve salvaged materials. Settling in New York in his 20s, Allen was hit by a bus while on his bike in 1993. With severe injuries and no insurance, he was unable to work his usual construction jobs, so he set up an antique ironing board with his carved pieces for sale in SoHo. His location was auspicious -- just a few feet away from Jerry's, a legendary diner frequented by art world luminaries that closed in 2007.

Alma Allen sculpture | Courtesy of Blum & Poe Archive
Alma Allen sculpture. | Photo: Courtesy of Blum & Poe Archive.
Alma Allen (b. 1970), "Untitled," 2013. Marble sculpture on an oak base, 25 × 20 × 14 in. (63.5 × 50.8 × 35.6 cm). Collection of the artist. | © Alma Allen
Alma Allen (b. 1970), "Untitled," 2013. Marble sculpture on an oak base, 25 × 20 × 14 in. (63.5 × 50.8 × 35.6 cm). Collection of the artist. | Photo: © Alma Allen.
Alma Allen, MARBLE 25 x 21 x 13, 2013
Alma Allen, MARBLE 25 x 21 x 13, 2013.

Spending just four days hawking his sculptures from this makeshift site, Allen met dealers such as Charles Cowles, the former publisher of Artforum and owner of an eponymously named gallery in New York, who included him in one of his group shows. Allen also met buyers and decorators who were drawn to his organic, undulating sculpture that continued to collect his work even after he relocated to Southern California in 2001.

Over time, Allen's process has evolved. After suffering from severe carpal tunnel syndrome from years of obsessive carving, Allen is no longer able to use his hands for extended periods. Rather than use a fabricator, he built a large-scale robotic system that acts as an extension of his hand-carved techniques.

He begins by creating his handheld models in clay or wax that can be read by a 3D scanner. His robot is then able to replicate his art at a larger scale. He finds the freedom and fluidity of working with his robot preferable to working with a fabricator. "I can change in the middle. That would be difficult to do with a fabricator," says Allen.

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Allen has also had a parallel career designing home furnishings, working in many of the same materials as his sculptures. Interior design firm Commune Design commissioned him to create one-of-a-kind pieces for the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs and stools for the Oliver Peoples store in Malibu, after stumbling upon his work over a decade ago in a pop up store he ran with his former girlfriend on Abbott Kinney in Venice.

More recently, Allen has created a collection of Bauhaus-influenced pottery with Commune for Heath ceramics. As Allen's career as a sculptor continues to rise, he's unsure of his future in furniture design. "I started making furniture accidentally, because the income was consistent," he explains. "I'm not sure if I'll continue."

Alma Allen sculpture | Courtesy of Blum & Poe Archive
Alma Allen sculpture. | Photo: Courtesy of Blum & Poe Archive.

These days, Allen works in Joshua Tree (though he spends his weekends in L.A.), in a compound he built himself that has become a mecca for longtime collectors. The otherworldly desert landscape also provides inspiration for Allen's work. "There is so much information from the natural world, so many [rock] arrangements. It helps jog your mind," he says.

Allen plays a key role today in Joshua Tree's burgeoning art community, becoming an elder statesman of sorts for younger artists who have moved to the desert. "Everyone I know either works for Alma or Andrea [Zittel]," jokes L.A.-based designer Brendan Ravenhill, referring to the installation artist and sculptor who is another central figure in the town's art scene. "We swap employees all the time," admits Allen, who even uses the same bookkeeper as Zittel.

For Allen, the expansive terrain in Joshua Tree allows him to continue working at a larger and larger scale -- a far cry from the tiny totem-like sculptures he once sold in SoHo. "The scale will increase even more," he promises. And he will continue to forge his own path with highly personal sculpture, independent of whatever art movement has caught the eye of collectors at the moment.

 

Alma Allen is on view at Blum & Poe through February 28, 2015.

Alma Allen, Not Yet Titled, 2014, Red travertine, 59 x 38 x 29 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe
Alma Allen, Not Yet Titled, 2014, Red travertine, 59 x 38 x 29 inches. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.
Alma Allen, Not Yet Titled (detail), 2014, Red travertine, 59 x 38 x 29 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe
Alma Allen, Not Yet Titled (detail), 2014, Red travertine, 59 x 38 x 29 inches. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.

 

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