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William Allister - Now and Zen

By Robert Amos November 4, 2002

} William Allister - Now and Zen 'As an artist I would paint a path toward peace, paint as I¹d never painted before, stretching to the limits, soaring, exploring new forms, new harmonies...Visions of giant canvases marrying East and West unfolded before me...' from Where Life and Death Hold Hands, by William Allister William Allister is an actor, a showman. He takes the dull material of life, invests it with magic and thus reveals the hidden meanings of things. In short, he is an artist. Allister spent much of World War Two as a prisoner of war, first in Hong Kong and later in Japan. His enthralling book, Where Life and Death Hold Hands, (Stoddart Books) alternates between passages of grim horror and joyous affirmations of life. In his painting as well, he touches all the notes, from purely abstract expression to beautifully rendered representation. Condo Site V   40" x 60"   Acrylic on canvas Now in his eighties, Allister paints with undiminished enthusiasm and a lavish display of talent. Under the title Now and Zen, his show of about '0 recent canvases is drawing visitors to the Stephen Lowe Gallery (until September '1). Typically, Allister begins with a man-sized white canvas, upon which anything might be inscribed. With a huge brush, he dashes down a single spontaneous character, instantly stating his continuing fascination with things Japanese. The ink lands with impact. From across the room the effect is like a struck gong. Beyond this Japanese effect, Allister¹s centred compositions call to mind the abstract 'push/pull' of Hans Hoffman. The initial inky downbeat pools like watercolour, and pigment mixed in explodes like fireworks. What runs down the page leaves a fascinating dendritic sediment. That¹s only the beginning. Allister builds on that spontaneous wash with some sort of spackle, trowelling patches of texture whose rugged surfaces suggest intricate carving, rich brocade or all manner of organic form. He continues to build form with glued-on sand, stones, kidney beans, and even maple leaves. These rugged textures make a complex ground for more painting. Brilliant acrylic colours are dragged across the rugged field, leaving highlight and shadow in their wake. By now Allister¹s poetic sensibility is coming into view. Real leaves pasted on the surface seem to fall, resulting in a talus heap of painted leaves below. Thus the artist gives visual form to the passage of time, the illusory nature of reality, and the impermanence of all appearances. Gold paint is always part of Allister¹s arsenal, and the gorgeousness of his gilded surfaces plays off against the blackness of his ink. There is a message in this - the effect is in the contrast. As his painterly play leads us to the painting¹s ultimate surface, Allister sometimes brushes in precise, articulate passages that satisfy our thirst for detail. The gumbo of surging abstract effect may suddenly resolve into a Buddha or an opal or a samurai horseman. When, at the intersection of passages of chaos, a chance bouquet of wildflowers suddenly appears, there is a lightness to such an apparition. At best we forget the artifice that led us to this point. Moments of beauty occur, shimmer briefly, and then vanish. The artist sometimes ties it all together with a rythmn of scribble, a whiplash of looping line which suddenly takes centre stage and enacts a dance, a solo melody performed just once. Zen Post Mod XI   36" x 48"   Acrylic on canvas I confess I am not totally at ease with Allister¹s work. There is a knowingness in the calligraphy that undercuts the intended spontaneity. And the knotted centre of these canvases can be claustrophobic, overwhelming the seductive emptiness which an important feature of true Japanese art. There is no empty space in an Allister composition. The forms threaten to fly apart, but are forcibly held in eternal climax. It is not calming. I think Allister knows this. He is clearly, unashamedly, in show business, and he grabs our attention by every means that comes to hand. With a bit of brassy paint and a few bars of black and white he implies, inspires and suggests all sorts of musical analogies. Riding on the edge of the wild side, he marshalls immense technical resources to put his message across. Such dare-devilry clearly courts disaster and sometimes he¹s just too clever for comfort. Three paintings on exhibit show more fully-worked scenes. Emerging from a mist, a flickering scrim of foliage effortlessly evokes the woodlands. With delicacy Allister articulates leaves and flowers, a few at a time. He knows how to suggest, rather than explain. Eventually, at the centre of a dappled, multi-hued canvas, the surging life of nature swells, rises into focus and becomes a lush visual symphony. Here is a master at work. One of these paintings is inscribed with a coda for all this visual glory: '...and we will walk sightless among miracles.' Allister invites us in and gives us a way to take the walk. He then opens our eyes to the infinite pleasures of being alive. You can see more of William Allister's artwork at the Stephen Lowe Art Gallery: ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2004 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at