Wall Street Journal: The Idiosyncratic Work of Sculptor Alma Allen

January 15, 2020

Sarah Medford

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The Idiosyncratic Work of Sculptor Alma Allen
By: Sarah Medford

Alma Allen learned to drive in rural Utah, where he grew up, and he drives fast. On an average day, he can make the 50-mile trip from his home in Mexico City to his sculpture studio, a boxy warehouse complex near the valley town of Tepoztlán, in about an hour. But the trips he prefers are the longer ones, to check out Mayan ruins or distant stone quarries. “You get used to watching the cuts of the roads—you can see what the ground is from that,” he says. “I’m always on the lookout for stones.” Near the former silver-mining town of Taxco, he spotted black marble in the roadcut and circled back to a local quarry with an assistant. Two years into his life in Mexico, Allen, 49, has made the most of its indigenous materials—marble, onyx and volcanic basalt, among others—to produce ever larger examples of the charged, abstract sculpture he’s become known for. “So much is here. I could spend a lifetime with it,” he says.

“Alma has a fresh and beautiful take on sculpture. I like his sense of the material. And his beautiful [Jean] Arp-like lines,” says Paul Kasmin, whose New York City gallery, Kasmin, debuts its first show with the artist on January 23. (Allen is also represented by Blum & Poe.) Among Allen’s followers are a cadre of art and entertainment insiders, including dealer Dominique Lévy, artist Jack Pierson and collectors Tobias Meyer and Mark Fletcher, along with Beyoncé, who commissioned a table from him not long ago, and Katy Perry.

Allen made the move to Mexico City from Southern California in the winter of 2017. Recently married to the writer and independent curator Su Wu, 37, he was looking to solve their geographic differences. “My wife likes the city, and I like the country—we both have to make ourselves happy,” he says. Their previous home, in Joshua Tree, had been too isolated for Wu, and after 11 years in the desert, Allen too was ready for a change. They made their decision the night of the 2016 presidential election.

Their sprawling two-story house is in Roma, whose patrician, tree-lined streets haunted Alfonso Cuarón’s recent film of the same name. Designed in 1923 by Raoul de la Lama, the neocolonial-style building was adapted at some point into a community theater; the home’s narrow-plank corridors have become racetracks for the couple’s 21-month-old daughter, Isadora. (Allen has another daughter, Frieda, 10, from a previous relationship.) After closing on the property, they learned it was a few doors down from the former home of William S. Burroughs and his wife Joan Vollmer, whose life ended in a nearby apartment one evening in 1951 when Burroughs, drinking heavily, aimed a gun at a glass balanced on her head and missed the glass. Allen calls the tragic episode “the dark side of Mexico City,” which seems increasingly distant from the gentrifying glow of art and design culture spreading across certain parts of town, including Roma.

The house provides them with a spacious setup, and Wu has ambitions for it. “There was an idea that it might be a store, a gallery, a showroom or a small restaurant. It’s in this lovely possibility space right now,” she says. “But Alma still has a studio here, as well as in Tepoztlán. For him, that’s the priority. I remember when we first got together—it was clear there’s nothing that will get in the way of his making work.” 

Born in Heber City, Utah, to devout Mormon parents, Allen was one of 11 children and grew up largely unsupervised. On solo forays into the nearby hills, he’d hunt for Native American petroglyphs and other cave art, taking a pocketknife to the felled wood he found and carving tiny sculptures. “I grew up in the country. Ten-year-olds were shooting deer,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of restraint.” At 16, he took off for Berkeley, California, and later New York, working odd jobs and shaping increasingly supple, pocket-size objects in his off hours. In 1993, when a period of hospitalization after a bike accident left him destitute, he started selling his pieces off an ironing board in SoHo, catching the eye of jeweler Ted Muehling and other locals. By word of mouth, he gained a following.

A 2001 move to Los Angeles led to furniture-making gigs for the design firm Commune and a storefront in Venice, which is where Dan Greaney, a writer for The Simpsons, first saw the work. “There was a strange quality running through it—the shelves and tables, also the things on the shelves, on the tables,” he recalls. “I asked the woman in the shop, ‘What’s going on here? Why is everything so beautiful?’ ” Greaney is now one of Allen’s most committed collectors.

By 2006, Allen had fled L.A. for the solitude of Joshua Tree, where he built a house and studio for himself and began shaping his increasingly large-scale pieces in relation to the high-desert landscape. But the strain that carving put on his wrists and arms became a problem. When stress fractures, followed by surgery, forced him to stop, he bought a used robotic arm from a Spanish auto shop and taught it how to carve for him. The three pieces he sent off to the 2014 Whitney Biennial—a breakout moment—were made with it. Not that handwork has entirely gone away: For a 2018 exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum, recalls the show’s curator, Brooke Hodge, “Alma refinished one piece on-site with black shoe polish because he didn’t like the foundry finish. He sandblasted another, then rubbed it down with sandpaper.”

Surfaces are highly expressive and specific for Allen, a result of the intuitive conversation he holds with each material. Forms may yield outcrops that suggest beaks, tentacles, nipples, stems, tails, though his references are never so explicit. Regardless of its final form, a piece always starts small, as a lump of soft clay or wax the size of a walnut.

“I like making new things every day,” he says. “When I was working by hand, I would often have a hundred pieces going at a time. I still do that, but I don’t produce all of them. And I don’t make drawings. Whenever I have a plan, I end up changing it. Maybe that’s why I have always loved working small.”

The radical intimacy of this work is translated to a larger scale via 3-D scanning, which captures every crease and squeeze with eerie accuracy. Allen directs the carving of each unique sculpture from there. His growing comfort with scanning and with monumental scale—his latest pieces weigh in at as much as five tons—has led him to start reverse-engineering this process: “If I have a big piece of stone, I sometimes make a small-scale replica and carve that,” he says. “Psychologically, you can see where the shapes will go.” The application of 21st-century science to a timeless craft took some getting used to, but his hybrid methods have slowly become second nature. 

Allen’s bronze-casting operation remains fairly old-school. Studio assistants help him break a model down into components, which are individually cast in his new foundry and then welded together. The finishing aspect in particular fascinates him. He’s now experimenting with chemical patinas achieved with a blowtorch, which he wields himself. “I think of it like painting,” he says.

Near the Tepoztlán studio, on lush acreage where he and Wu plan to build a series of stone cabins, Allen has been positioning large sculpture against the surrounding landscape, as he once did in Joshua Tree. Despite the existential leaps he’s taken over the years, the work on view displays an astonishing consistency. A terraced garden is now in progress, something Allen was dreaming about even before his arrival in Mexico. His efforts have already turned up ancient pottery shards and chunks of obsidian. “I grew tired of the desert,” he says. “You can grow almost anything here.”

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