ARTSatlantic – Marie Hélène Allain: Sculpture

Marie Hélène Allain: Sculpture
Gallery 78, Fredericton
2‑15 March 1989

This show revealed Marie‑Hélène Allain to be at a point of transition. Among the nine sculptures shown were works of great power and major achievement, and others clearly exploratory in nature. One senses that a major period may be closing, as she ranges through her idioms from earliest to latest and beyond.

The uniformly sleek biomorphic forms of the ’70s are recalled in upright form in prayerful attitude; unexceptional, save for the few horizontal and vertical grooves added to alleviate its smooth perfection. These were a surprise. Nothing so unavoidably human as a straight line had appeared in Allain’s work before. They recurred in several other sculptures, and were only one of the varied signs of change.

Through the ’80s, Allain has explored the aesthetic and philosophic ramifications of opposing textures, and several fine pieces continued in this idiom. Confidence consists of two communicating forms in ivory travertine, reminiscent of the Beaverbrook commission. The porous, sometimes lacey character of this stone lent itself to romantic treatment.

Other more rigorous works emerged from tan Indiana limestone. In #86, the swelling horizontal rhythms suggest powerful marine currents. Only at its extremities was contrast provided to its sleek surfaces.

Something more human is implied by the vertical stance of #88. The slight twist of the form, the contraposto, is as vital Io this work as to early Greek sculpture in its breaking away from rigid frontality. Smooth, ascending passages give way to a roughly chiseled diagonal slash, marked by unmistakably intentional parallel grooves. By her own admission, Allain here attempts to, tangibly express that complex evolutionary interrelationship between man and the planet he inhabits, in which man’s intervention has influenced the course of evolution; that impact reverberating back upon man himself.

Quite different again is the severe beauty of #89: the tan limestone worked so that its close grained striations elucidate the slender but skewed rectangularity of the block. Faint marks are visible among the irregularities of the upper surface. One end, as well, remains in its natural state. Allain spoke of this in terms of the geometric, the intellectual turning again organic: an outstanding work.

That being said, it was nevertheless clear that the strongest and most significant work of the show was Mouvance #3. The ovoid of banded grey marble, broken apart in two planes, implies vast energies at work. The shift of the upper sections from their original alignment is further evidence of the magnitude of these forces. While Allain’s work has often expressed elemental forces, never before has it focused on such a violent rupture. One almost needs the 18th century concept of the sublime‑something evoking awe and terror‑to express its power. It is this work that embodies the most authentic, the most profound, of Allain’s new directions.

Her experiments, however, went further. The precarious balance of an elegantly smooth organic shape, resting with one foot on stacked rough fragments of the same limestone, was disconcerting. While such instability might be exploited by another artist, it seemed out of keeping for Allain. Et vos os revivront attempts what much of her work expresses intrinsically the cyclic process of organic renewal. This is usually accomplished as flowing passages of polished stone emerge from, or encounter, rough formlessness. In this case, the large animal bones and bronze bone‑like form projecting from slabs of creamy travertine are much too literal.

Prophecy is more successful. This small table‑top piece consists of a plate‑like piece of travertine like the fungi that grow from trees mounted vertically on rugged black volcanic rock. The directional thrust of the travertine, convex in shape, is reinforced by the projection of a bone from its surface; the porous nature of the bone’s end uncannily similar to the texture of the travertine The work, as a whole, has a portentous quality that justifies its name. Interesting in itself, this small work seemed out of place among Allain’s more massive sculptures.

Such combinations of materials have not been part of Allains exhibited work before. They seem, however, a natural extension of her interest in textural contrast. While these particular pieces may be less than fully successful, there is great potential in this direction.

Roslyn Rosenfeld
ARTSatlantic 35, Fall 1989