Feathers Made of Bronze: Sterling Allen’s ‘Photorealism’

Allen installed 59 of his sculpture made from found objects on the backlot of an unleased office space


“Art is so reliant on the image right now, with galleries and their virtual viewing rooms” says Sterling Allen. “But I’d rather be in a place and have an actual experience.”

In his recently-launched exhibition “Photorealism,” Allen explores the relationship between image and actuality — specifically, how sculptures depend on photography to move through the world.

Since 2018 the Austin artist has been setting up temporary installations at (often) undisclosed locales, hauling finished works and raw materials from his studio to various sites and setting up shop for a short while, before dismantling and debarking. Few, if any people, ever experience them firsthand. Documentation is the important part, he tells me. “The project is really only available through images, but it’s still a sculpture project. I’m interested in that tension.”

Allen’s most recent iteration is different than the others. First, because it’s the last. After the show wraps, he plans to submit this final round of documentation for an upcoming book titled “Our New Room.” The exhibition, which features 59 sculptural works — the artist’s largest to date — runs until December 19. It is also open to the public, though it requires a secret knock.

Organized by Northern-Southern Gallery, “Photorealism” is set on the grounds of an “overlook-able” commercial space on West Anderson Lane. Those who subscribe via the gallery website will be given access to the exact address as well as a map. Allen negotiated a short-term lease with the building owner, but only for the exterior space, a request which he admits must have seemed peculiar.

“What I’m doing doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says. “I sent him information and images, but you never want to inundate — you’re trying to come across as a sane person.”

Allen was drawn to this particular locale for its variety of structures which includes a small yard, an open lot, and several covered areas which act as little project rooms.

This is also the first time the artist has leased a spot for an installation, a small investment which makes it more official, less ephemeral. A contract rather than nouveau loitering. “I like that it’s fairly clear of debris. There’s a lot of stuff here that I didn’t bring, but it’s also not just a complete dump. And the light is really good.”

We are standing in the center of the lot, what he describes as the “big, open vaulted room” of the space, surrounded by a spectrum of sculptures; some which stand out as art and some that blend right in. Dry leaves rattle on the ground as the late-afternoon sun slices through a curtain of tie-dyed t-shirts blowing in the wind.

“These same eight shirts always hang on a line — I have the original one with me in case there isn’t a clothesline available,” he says matter-of-factly. “The pieces have rules.”

Allen tends to reconfigure his objects the same way each time he installs, taking exact measurements to replicate the experience elsewhere. He is aggregating the work, building from one show to the next, though not necessarily using all the same objects each time. In this way, the installations are metamorphosing, adapting in one context before becoming the residue of some other thing which no longer works — like a vestigial organ.

Allen points out two interlocking blue two-by-fours which he initially called “Cousins.” At first, they stood up on their own, but then they kept falling over. Now the work is titled “Cousins (Sleepover).”

“Nothing in my body wants me to measure where ‘Sleepover’ is in relation to these two posts.” He gestures to two poles helping hold up the carport we’re under. “The piece has its dimensions, but its orientation is not fixed. I don’t care how it sits — it just needs to be that way.”

There is a complex system in place, and only Allen can determine how that system works; an exploration of impermanence which makes the whole process feel like a clunky sand mandala.

Sterling Allen
Allen’s installations are metamorphosing, adapting in one context, then another. Pictured is“Split Fountain” (2020). Photo courtesy the artist.

Other sculptures include wall hangings, rock formations, pocket-sized trinkets, a concrete post containing a cast of the artist’s own hands, and one very flat parrot titled “Split Fountain” (2020). The heavy object pinning the painted bird shows his sense of humor, though Allen quickly turns serious: “I will take the squashed parrot home with me, but not the brick.”

Much of the work is made in his studio, but as the work accumulates on site, his studio becomes more like a storage space. Outdoor alternative spaces span the same continuum as a standard gallery space, he tells me. In a white cube, there are also idiosyncrasies: outlets, conduits, the white noise from air ducts. (At that moment a perfect eddy of dry leaves kicks up around our feet.)

“I’m trying to be deliberate with the in-between elements. There are things here that look like sculpture, but aren’t, and things that don’t look like sculpture, but are.”

Each sculpture has been given a sentimental name: “Dripped and Draped” (2019), “Banana Hangers” (2020), “Stabbed Growth Seat” (2019). We walk around the corner to an asterisk-shaped object hanging on a corrugated tin door. The object is painted red, with small hooks screwed into each spoke; something he found at Goodwill. “I don’t know what its purpose was, if it held hats or jewelry or keys, but there’s tenderness in the way it’s been put together.”

“Fear is Not Real” (2020) was first included in an apartment that was being flipped. Allen hung it on the apartment’s bathroom wall, so the mirror would reflect its image. Its title comes from the words written on the mirror.

He says the title “Photorealism” stems from the concept of “trompe l’oeil” which translates from French as “fool the eye.” It’s about a relationship with illusion; Allen gives the example of a bronze sculpture painted to appear as light as a feather. “Trompe l’oeil draws me in immediately, but then I’m completely disinterested after that.”

I ask Sterling how he feels about visitors coming to see this project. He says he’s ambivalent. It’s been a very private process up until now, which he has quite enjoyed. But he’s willing to share: when trying to decipher what is and what isn’t, the senses really kick in. “My goal is for people to enjoy that activity of looking.”

Allen says the experience of being with the actual object is more valuable than looking at a fussed over, expensive-looking object. “This pile of leaves could be made out of bronze, but I don’t care about the material — I care about what it means to be standing here in front of these leaves.”

Otherwise, what’s the point, he asks. “If you’re a photorealist artist, beyond your own virtuosity, what are you doing?”

“Photorealism: Sterling Allen” continues through Dec. 19. Get a map at northern-southern.com/2020/sterling-allen-photorealism/

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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