At Large  July 6, 2023  Dian Parker

Jess Allen: The Shadow Hunter

Courtesy the artist

Jess Allen, i even dream about you, oil on canvas, 112 x 122 cm

Often an artist finds their voice through decades of work. A unique signature is created. Even though the focus may shift and bend, the inimitable remains. There is no one like her anywhere. The painter Jess Allen is one of these artists. Even though her subject changes, she is recognizable. There are her subdued, muted tones; warm creams and soft greys, milky browns and pale greens. Animated shadows in unique shapes. A light that splays over objects and figures. The confidence in obvious brushstrokes. Enclosed landscapes in the rearview mirror of a car. A single chair; one open book. The simplicity of composition requires an astute awareness of space, form, and light.

Take her book paintings. Books are stacked up or lie alone on a chair. Light angles across the open page or is concentrated in the layers of paper edges. Reading is a private experience. So too is looking at Allen’s paintings. Both are an intimate relationship that does not involve anyone else. These experiences invite stillness into a place of silent solitude. One is left alone with one’s thoughts. There is no intrusion; there is peace.

Courtesy the artist

Jess Allen, Paperbacks 5, oil on linen, 24 x 30 cm

In Paperbacks, each of the stacked books is unique even though we’re only shown the end view of their pages. To take simple objects like books, paper bags, or boxes, and give each of them authority is remarkable. This speaks for the care and attention Allen gives to the work. Her powers of observation are clear and steady.

Boxes, towers of boxes. Still lifes of boxes. Empty boxes, laid open, almost vulnerable. The painting The Spaces Within shows four boxes nestled against one another as if for security, as the empty spaces inside the boxes are wide open and available. It’s not as if the objects are animated. It’s more of a suggestion, a nudge, hinting at interpretation. The colors are creamy; the brushstrokes evident. Each box has its own individual shadow, holding its own light.

Courtesy the artist

Jess Allen, I should remember to forget, oil on canvas, 101 x 116 cm

In some paintings, there may be only a sofa or a window, but there is always the light. “My primary interest in these empty space images is creating works which are about what is not there and what is absent. Paintings can have many different layers of meaning, for both the artist and the viewer,” Allen said. “Working from observation, the presence of light and shade feels inevitable. I like this visual game of presence and absence.” It’s as if the painter was inside the painting and speaking directly to the viewer, like a ghost, an echo, a soul. But the shadow remains.

When Allen paints figures, they are mostly seen in shadow and as background. We don’t know what’s really happening for these people so we’re left up to our own imaginings. In the painting, I should remember to forget: is the couple kissing, or is the woman pushing away from the man? In I even dream about you, is the man in the same room as the woman? Is he lurking, ready to interfere with her slumber, or is she turned away and finished with him?

“Shadows feel to me like a remaining echo of someone once being there, ‘something’ which physically doesn’t exist. Silhouettes, caught by the winter sunlight as it came through the window, onto the wall, onto a bookshelf. Couples together in the light,” Allen said. “I became a shadow hunter.”

Courtesy the artist

Jess Allen, tower of small boxes, study 2, oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm

Born in Dorset, England in 1966, Allen spent a great deal of her childhood in London. She studied at Camberwell College of Arts and received a BA Honours in Fine Art at Falmouth School of Art. Today she lives in remote Cornwall at the edge of Moorlands. Her studio is in an old barn. Allen has two grown daughters, and is currently a business partner in her husband’s sculpture business, Simon Allen Sculptor.

She has a number of exciting exhibitions that are currently showing her work: in Shanghai, Multiple Refraction ‒ The Ghost of Modernism, at the Cubist Art Space; Untold Stories, at the G/AR/TEN Gallery in Como, Italy; The Angel in the House at Studio West Gallery and Forget-me-nots at The Split Gallery, both in London. She also has two other international shows in discussion. In the past, she has shown in New York City and in Stockholm.

Jess Allen’s inspiration from Giorgio Morandi’s paintings is obvious. Both treat everyday objects with reverence, and both are serious practitioners of their art. Allen is also inspired by Sean Scully, Agnes Martin, the Romanian and French painter Avigdor Arikha, and the British still-life painter William Nicholson. Each of these artists are minimalists that make the work breathe. To be still and have life is not easy.

About the Author

Dian Parker

Dian Parker’s essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She ran White River Gallery in Vermont, curating twenty exhibits, and now writes about art and artists for various publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. To find out more, visit her website

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