Stranger than fact
Greg Allen is one of the best painters in town. He’s painted portraits of well-known artists (Richard Jackson, Jaxon Northon); an album cover for Richmond Fontaine, the band of Reno-born novelist Willy Vlautin; and loving tributes to long-gone local eateries such as Landrum’s and Deux Gros Nez. He is a longstanding Reno legend.
But you probably haven’t seen him at many parties lately. He spends most of his time in his studio—which is basically an easel, a computer and some neatly arranged shelves of oil paint in the corner of his neatly arranged kitchen—concentrating on meticulous tasks such as painting sagebrush with precision veracity or rendering the glow of Reno neon just right.
Everything about Allen looks retro, from the slicked-back hair to the mailman-style shirt with the Pabst Blue Ribbon patch. His fashion sense might suggest that he lives in the speed-fed world of Los Angeles lowbrow, the 1970s art movement whose hot-rod-revving buxom babes still fill the pages of magazines such as Hi-Fructose and Juxtapoz. He does have an affinity for that kind of imagery. He wears it on his sleeve in the form of tattoos wrapped around his arms. But what really holds his attention as a painter is the rich, weird world of non-fiction.
“Nothing is stranger than reality, by far,” said Allen, soft-spoken and thoughtful. It was a strange occurrence that got him into this job in the first place. At 33, he was playing in a hardcore punk band. A disgruntled 18-year-old neo-Nazi stabbed him with a knife, he said.
“I ended up getting pretty seriously hurt,” he said. “During my recuperation, I decided to teach myself to paint. It’s completely shifted my life. I used to be a very social person.” The requisite reclusiveness didn’t come naturally, but eventually the paintings required too much focus for hosting many visitors. Allen gestured to a café-table-sized canvas, a painting of the Nevada Club, which lit up Reno with 1940s dazzle until it was closed in 1997.
“This has 300 in it,” he said. Three hundred hours, that is, and he still has hundreds of tiny light bulbs yet to paint.
“The kind of work that I really respect is when I look at it and go, ’How is that even humanly possible?’” Allen said. It’s also the kind of work he paints. He looks deep and longingly into our own back yard, rendering with lavish detail the unsung beauty of rough, rural Nevada and bright, urban facades from decades gone by. He paints a hyper-realistic combination of loneliness and celebration, with a sensibility that’s somehow at once worldly and sheltered. He can paint a sunset over Peavine Mountain without being saccharine or a broken-down mobile home without being ironic or clichéd. He reveres mid-20th-century Nevada, highlighting its grit and glamor as if they were one and the same.
As Allen prepared to mount a rare exhibition at Holland Project, he mentioned that he doesn’t mind impressionist paintings or abstraction, but to him, realism—the colors, textures, tones, tragedies and triumphs that the world is actually made of—hit hardest.
“You can’t tell me there’s a lot of pathos in Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock,” he said. “You can’t tell me there’s a lot about the human condition in splatter art and solid color canvasses. I like work that is reflective of the state of humanity.”