Farron Allen’s Body of Work
Bits and pieces of humanity in a cry for freedom
By Saad Ghosn
Farron Allen grew up in the mountains of southern West Virginia, the product of three generations of coalminers. He was raised by loving and religious grandparents who imparted to him the rigorous and somewhat rigid teachings of their Southern Baptist faith.
As a child, he helped his father build things around the house; it gave him a good sense for materials and constructions that proved important in his artistic direction.
Allen is a sculptor who uses primarily fabricated or found metal objects, casted and welded together, thus given a new life.
“In my work, I usually incorporate fragments – found, given, from my own history, of my creation – that I weld together in a final form that bears a special meaning,” he says. “The finished product makes a statement and connects to me, my art, the history of the objects included, the people they represent.”
Allen is also a popular art teacher at the University of Cincinnati (UC), where he teaches sculpture foundry.
Despite his early inclinations to art, reflected by his constant drawing as a child and throughout school, Allen did not pursue art education until in his late twenties. In college, he earned two degrees in social work, specializing in aging. He worked then in nursing homes and community programs, an occupation he enjoyed but that he interrupted, relocating to Florida for personal reasons.
When he returned a few years later to his native West Virginia, not finding a satisfying job in social work, he worked as a toll collector on the West Virginia Turnpike. This allowed him to further his artistic interest: working on the midnight shift, he took advantage of its slow pace to re-immerse himself in art and create a whole body of drawings collected by friends, coworkers and regular truckers who came through his lane.
Eight years later, due to the tedious nature of his otherwise well paying job, Allen decided to quit it and pursue instead an art career. He enrolled at West Virginia University, received a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture and graphic design, then at UC for a master of fine arts degree in sculpture. Allen has lived in Cincinnati since then, creating his own art and teaching at the university.
The human figure always held an important place in his work. Abstracted life-size at the beginning, it became progressively decomposed into body parts, hands, faces, incorporated in sculptures with found objects, tools, spoons, crosses. Skulls and bones were also often prominent.
This imagery, termed the Attack on Innocence by Allen, coincided with the emerging of the AIDS epidemic and Allen’s experience of the death of many of his friends and lovers. It was his reaction to the physical disintegration of a large generation of young individuals, also to his anger at the negative societal response to the disease because it affected predominantly homosexual men.
Other concerns that transpired all along through Allen’s works pertained to religion, its conflict with sexuality, its misuse for power and control; the moral hypocrisy that frequently rules society, the imposed conformist values that disagree with the individual’s basic aspirations. Being raised in a poor area controlled by corporations, brought up in a religion that denied and denigrated his own sexual expression and brainwashed with a set of rules contradictory to his thoughts and beliefs generated anger that came out as a statement in his work. Allen’s response, initially visceral and cathartic, later became message-laden, compassionate in its story telling.
“I want my art to speak to people, to trigger questioning and thinking, to generate a reaction, even if not always positive,” he says. “I want the history behind my work and its implications to be communicated and perceived.”
Commemorating those who died from AIDS, Allen did a series of altars with lights and mounds of bones, commentaries on death and life. Addressing the mixing of religion and sexuality, he did an installation that included a cross composed of thousands of small crucifixes and an altar made of waxed underwear having phallic lights inside them.
Reflecting on his own religious upbringing, childhood and sexuality, he did a series of Hair Boxes, incorporating his grandmother’s jewelry, family bibles, crucifixes, his own hair that his grandmother had saved, casted body parts. He was thus enclosing his personal history with its conflicts and contradictions inside a box.
Hammered into Form, a bronze and steel black sculpture, represents a hand caught between two hammers, tools used to forge metal. He meant it as an allegory to how we’re formed as human beings, forged by our upbringing, education, external factors, opportunities. The hand appears stuck, yet seems to reach out for change. A spoon, symbol of what is spoon-fed and forced down one’s throat, but also of medicine and cure, is placed in front of it. A twisted piece of metal rod welded to the side alludes to knotted and painful internal organs. The piece also addresses the boundaries and regulations set by government and laws, often to profit those in power, at the expense of the individual.
Reaching Out, a similarly themed sculpture, represents a hand covered with nails, displayed on a heavy tall structure with a chain. The hand reaches out but is weighted down and imprisoned.
“Body parts are a frequent metaphor in my work,” Allen says. “They deal with the idea of attack, initially centered on AIDS – the rejection of a generation of people by government policy, morality, fear of contamination – but also attack on the essence and integrity of the individual by religion, politics, power and greed.”
Through his art and teaching, Allen continues his plea to liberate the human from all that ties it down, especially rules hypocritically condoned by society. The cocooned, enclosed body that appeared in his earlier installations gave way later to free winged figures and angels. It is a transformation he would like to trigger and see happen in everyone, including himself.
“I cannot imagine myself not doing art,” Allen says. “Art for me is everything. I make it, teach it, surround myself with it, use it to communicate and to hopefully make a change.”