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The Collector of Experiences 

Mark Allen and his Machine Project

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
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Page 5 of 8

For a while, Allen was a painter. He made more than 600 paintings and drawings while he was in Houston. “They were very personal,” he says, offhandedly. “A lot of S&M themes.” On his Web site (www.markallen.com), he has categorized the drawings into themes: Animals and Insects; Bondage, Nudity and Sex; Drugs and the Brain; Masks; Worms and Snakes; Cute and Happy; Medical Problems, Amputations and Decapitations; Multiple Personalities and Suicides; Assorted Orifice; and Pickles. The drawings are delicate, vaguely disturbing yet funny, as if rendered by a naughty child. Filed into Pickles, for example, is a nervous boy with a bunny head sitting on top of a giant, grotesque pickle. Elsewhere, a fuzzy bear is busy sawing off his own paw.

“Each character is a specimen,” explains one character, called The Artist, whose face is blacked out, “a part of my personality that I want to examine. I’ve been making the same drawing for years; a single character stands in for me, expressing anxiety by doing nothing.”

Allen cannot help but make art. Even though there are those who have said that it isn’t even art that he’s making. Even though he could just as easily give it all up, get some sleep, get some corporate office job and make his life infinitely less complicated. Drink the poison quinine and it either heals you or casts you into the deepest nightmare.

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You’ve Got Mail

In my mailbox: “Dear Pals, If you’re curious about the connections between Coleopteria, Malaria and the Dermestid Museorum Linnaeus beetles, you’ll want to attend this. Also, there will be doughnuts.”

“Dear Pals, I’m now looking for a basketball hoop, just the metal-hoop part. Anyone have one in their garage they aren’t using? I have this crazy fantasy that one of you has one in your garage you want to be rid of.”

“Dear Pals, Have you been feeling down lately about your lack of knowledge of quantum computing? . . . Us too!”

Some 1,100 people have signed up to receive Machine Project’s e-mails. At the Fry-be-que party, yes, there were sculptors, painters, designers, musicians, writers, gallerists and people otherwise invested in the production of creative things for a living, but there were also soccer moms and dads, lawyers, scientists, students, teachers, homemakers and accountants. Not scenesters or hipsters, just plain folk.

I meet a former student of Allen’s that night. Wes and his date used to go to Allen’s Houston parties. Allen’s collective then was called Good Art/Bad Art. Wes describes an art project of theirs back then, which involved locking a bunch of frat boys into a room with a keg of beer and some permanent markers. They kept the frat boys locked up for eight hours. When they sobered up, the boys got angry and scrawled on the walls.

“That’s not art, that’s a prank,” I say, noting the little round MOCA admission sticker on Wes’ shirt.

“That’s exactly the idea,” he continues, excitedly. “Is it good art or bad?”

Class Clowns

“The question of what is and isn’t art is a perennial one among nonartists,” says Allen. “But it’s one that artists never discuss.” We’re having lunch in the village near the Pomona College campus with Brown and interns Tse and O’Toole. Another e-mail had ticked into my message box some time earlier: “Dear Pals . . . I got that Pomona job!”

The job is a newly created tenure-track associate-professor position in Pomona College’s art department. There’s sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and Mark Allen — i.e., digital art. The more cryptic his assignments, the better his students’ work. He makes the students compete. Who can make the most annoying sound loop? The worst Web page? He sprints across the classroom and flings himself into a closed door to demonstrate the way semiconductor diodes conduct electricity in one direction only.

The village encircling the campus is a haven of crafty stores selling kites and tchotchkes and Birkenstock sandals, exactly the kind of stuff that certain art crowds love to mock. “It’s all become context,” Allen continues. “That’s the Modernist heritage. If you put something in an art gallery, then it’s art. Or if you write about it in an art magazine, it’s art.” There is a myth of artistic genius, Allen believes, that revolves around some romanticized Ted Kaczynski type out in the woods. Only the geniuses at the museum are able to see what no one else can see: the independent, mad artist waiting to be discovered. That setup, Allen says, is false. If the ability to make great art is a gift, then beautiful paintings or music are the result of luck rather than hard work or struggle. Instead of being something that anybody can do or make or identify, art becomes something unattainable, elite, elusive.

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