Vacancy showcases an ambitious series of paintings Allan Beckley
began in 1999. Based on personal photographs of his travels across
Canada and the United States, Allan has produced a painstakingly
crafted series of high realist acrylic paintings depicting
historical neon signage. Sometimes whimsical, sometimes derelict,
sometimes even tragic, Allan’s selection of imagery gives us a
rare and comprehensive view of the so-called vernacular design of
North American, post-war culture as he documents its momentum
toward extinction. Allan’s clarity of detail pays homage to neon
signage as an unmistakable and lasting influence on contemporary
lifestyle, architecture and design.
With local directions and camera in hand, Allan and his wife,
Joan, searched for significant examples of the “tube benders”
art, primarily in the American south-west. “No Vacancy is a
series of acrylic paintings that flood our memories of a bygone
era and of the meetings I had with many of the old characters who
recalled the halcyon years of neon,” says Allan whose work has
been shown in major exhibitions across Canada and the United
States. “From many diverse locations and schools of design, we
get to see neon signs that influenced architecture, lifestyles and
an art form that is quickly disappearing. This exhibition gives us
a chance to see fascinating designs and locations we might
otherwise have missed.”
Allan has always sketched images for as long as he can remember.
His first attempts at art were pencil drawings on the smooth, pure
white cardboard inserts from his father’s commercially laundered
white dress shirts. In high school, he craved professional
instruction and changed from a general arts school to one of
Canada’s best fine art education programs at H.B. Bell in London
where he was introduced to acrylics and high realism painting
techniques. After high school, Allan was accepted to attend the
Ontario College of Art from more than 1,500 applications.
To help pay his way through school, Allan played electric bass in
a large rhythm and blues band at all the major Toronto hotspots
from Yorkville to Yonge Street. When the band was offered to be a
road band for a new recording artist, Allan had a decision to make
– going on the road as a musician or pursue a career as an
artist. The mid to late 1960s saw great turmoil at the Ontario
College of Art as student organized a sit-down protest to rally
against the cookie cutter approach to student instruction. Two
years later, Allan left the college and went to work as a contract
sales designer for a Danish furniture outlet in London. All the
while, he continued to paint.
Allan works from research photographs taken at each location.
While onsite, he photographs as much detail as he can and from
many angles to take back to the studio to compose the structure of
the painting. “I’m habitually trained to use the rule of
thirds whenever possible and recognize the interplay of light,
shadow and reflection on and object,” says Allan who often uses
an eight-foot-long ruler to draw the perspective lines to create
the original drawing. Most often, these rulers are pieces of vinyl
molding sometimes nailed at one end to an adjacent door frame. To
create the curved surfaces, he uses a myriad of French curve rules
as well as flexible rulers with malleable interior cores.
Allan begins the application of colour to the canvas by applying
an opaque base coat to a particular area, always working back to
front. To create tonal variation, he applies cross hatch or dry
brush techniques, usually using a fine #3 nylon brush. After
completion, the painting is brushed with a top-coat of Liquitex
Soluvar, an acrylic based spirit varnish to protect the surface.
On average, each painting takes about five weeks from start to
finish as Allan works on only one piece at a time.
Accompanying each painting in No Vacancy, Allen includes a brief
history about the significance of the neon sign. Some of the signs
were suggested by the Neon Museum in Las Vegas as historically
necessary, some were caught in the act of near destruction and
some were undiscovered gems he found when travelling along
abandoned stretches of Route 66. Although the painting subjects
may be thousands of miles apart, they all share a bond or
commonality in what they communicate.
A public reception for No Vacancy will be held on Saturday,
from 1pm to 3pm at the Chapel Gallery. The exhibition continues at
the Chapel Gallery until December 13.
“I hope the viewers will begin to appreciate the tube benders
artistry in the paintings,” states Allan. “I expect most
attendees will be fascinated by the impact that neon has played
such an important role in shaping design trends, social mores and
cultural movements for a hundred years. I’m recording a brief
glimpse of our own history.”
The Chapel Gallery
is located at 15 King Street in Bracebridge. Gallery hours are
Tuesday through Saturday, from 10am to 1pm and from 2pm until 5pm
with admission by donation. For more information, please visit
www.muskokaartsandcrafts.com or call (705) 645-5501.