Seeing one of Greg Allen’s paintings produces a curious effect. Something about the precise geometry, ultra-realistic color, and banal subject matter combine to make the image feel more like a memory, rendered in the dreamy imperfections of oil paint, but accurate nonetheless. There’s simply a part of you that’s seen this sight somewhere before—even if you haven’t.
“I think one of my best skills is to be able to capture a sense of a place,” said Allen from his home studio in Reno’s midtown neighborhood. “I’ve had a lot of Nevadans that have moved away tell me that my work takes them back home.”
And while Nevadans might recognize some specific subjects in his work (erstwhile neon streetsigns of long demolished bars, landscapes of Pyramid Lake, etc.) many of Allen’s paintings focus on small, overlooked moments in the American West and serve as the inspiration for his first new show in over five years, A Certain Quality of Light: Paintings from the Desert West at the Holland Project this September.
Born in Los Angeles, Allen is, like many, a transplant to Northern Nevada. An artist since childhood, he parlayed his talent for accurate figure drawing to his work as a realist painter. He resists terms like “photo-realist” or “ultra-realist” on technical grounds, but to the casual observer, his paintings carry the same level of detail as the photographs he takes and uses for inspiration.
“When I started painting, I wanted to paint as well as I could, realistically,” Allen said. “I mean, I did a landscape. I did a seascape. I did a portrait. And then I just tried to get better at what I did. Throughout my painting career, I’ve always had personal paintings, which were a little bit different—a little bit weird. I guess you’d say lowbrow, hot rod influenced or whatever. So I did both. I tried to paint realistically, and then did my weird stuff.”
Allen first took up his brush after a traumatic event in his youth. As a hardcore musician in Reno, he was in a band that headlined a show at the now-closed Ice House venue, where the opener was another famous Renoite, author and friend Willy Vlautin. Before he even made it onstage, he was drawn into an altercation in the parking lot.
“I got into a fight with a Nazi skinhead and I got stabbed,” Allen said. “I didn’t see the knife. I didn’t know. I didn’t even feel it. So, I got messed up pretty bad and was recuperating and decided to learn how to paint. … Now I would shake the guy’s hand. He did me a huge favor because I might not have started painting, ever.”
Allen went on to study the basics of realism and has remained self-taught throughout his entire career. In a roundabout sort of cosmic karma, he eventually painted four album covers for Vlautin’s band, Richmond Fontaine.
“I sold a bunch of images and prints of the artwork,” Allen said. “[Vlautin] helped me make thousands and thousands of dollars. He’s just a great guy.”
Allen’s work has ranged over the years in terms of subject matter. He’s done portraits, landscapes, and more surreal offerings. (He’s currently working on a series of Mouseketeers going to war.) He intuitively picks up on what he finds visually interesting, with a particular eye for the geometry and visual weight of his subjects.
His more current work might be described as something akin to industrial desert still-life: an imposing freight train, dark and rigid against the pale blue desert sky; the wheel and body of a semi truck, the grey asphalt becoming the stage for their manmade geometric dance; a neon sign glowing softly as the sunset fades to black, so carefully realized you can almost hear it hum.
Allen puts it more simply. “What I paint is beautiful images,” he said. “And I find them everywhere. I was born into the mid modern century—things were well made. We were going to the moon, and it was an exciting time. It was basically America at the peak of its power. America has always had a lot of issues, but back then there was a lot of optimism. So I see a lot of beauty in the things that were well made.”
In Allen’s own words, he tries not to be a “curmudgeon” about the current age, but admits that he eschews most modern aesthetics. He finds limited value in the likes of Jackson Pollock in being able to convey “the human condition.” Modern architecture looks cheap and poorly made. He questions if our smart technology might just be making us more dumb. And while nostaliga isn’t the point of his work, more and more “beautiful images” are disappearing every day.
“When I started painting, I went around and took photos in Reno and most of the stuff I’ve photographed is gone now,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like I should be that old, to have witnessed everything disappear, right? But it has. And things change so rapidly that my paintings document a certain period of time. By forcing your concentration on it, it opens your mind up to realizing there’s something there.”
And it’s not just the town that’s changing around him. For the past few years, Allen has struggled with worsening health issues that have impacted his mobility, making it difficult for him to go take new photos for inspiration or to paint for extended periods of time. Scoliosis confines him to sitting for most of the time—although he’s managed to resolve some of his difficulties with a specially crafted easel and an effective medication regimen.
“I’ve got stage three kidney failure,” he said. “I imagine I’m going to have to go on dialysis if I live long enough, which isn’t that far off. I don’t know if I’ll still be able to paint. I don’t know how much it’s gonna hurt … it takes a certain quality of life to be able to paint. I can’t have a migraine and paint, right? As far as mental focus, and physically, it’s now become challenging, but not insurmountable.”
For now, Allen’s health issues have merely slowed him down, and he’s spent the past few years since his last show carefully crafting his new body of work. A “fast” painting for him takes around 200 hours to complete, he said, and he’ll often put a piece away for months on end when he feels like he can no longer “see” the work. With around two-dozen new pieces slated to be revealed at A Certain Quality of Light, his many fans might regard the new show as the return of a Reno legend.
To Allen and his small, neatly organized midtown studio, though, his mission remains humble in its message, but grand in its implications: find something beautiful.
“When I started painting, I thought I just made these things and they sat on people’s walls to look at, and I didn’t realize it … my paintings had a whole life beyond me,” Allen said. “I’ve grown to recognize that the paintings can do a lot of amazing things for people. People have a whole relationship with my work that has nothing to do with me, other than being the creator of the image. I’m sure most of my paintings will outlive me, and hopefully for a long time. I never had kids so they’re basically my kids, I guess. A lot easier to raise.”
A Certain Quality of Light: Paintings from the Desert West will be shown at the Holland Project From Sept. 5-Oct. 6 with a reception on Friday, Sept, 8 at 5 pm.
Images courtesy of Greg Allen