Some people wake up from the fever dream of youthful turbulence and substance-tinged madness into steadiness; others don't make it. Rochester-based artist Danny Allen was central to the city's young art scene in the late 1960's and early 70's before he ended his life in 1974 at age 28. A four-venue retrospective exhibition of Allen's art as well as that of some of his friends is being held concurrently at Rochester Contemporary, Gallery Q, AXOM, and Mercer Gallery.
After his death, Allen's legacy and work remained in the minds and hands of his friends, but his name and art experienced a revival in 2013 after his intricate and surreal painting "Sunny Ducks" was chosen from the Memorial Art Gallery's permanent collection for inclusion in an exhibit of work drawn from the MAG's vaults. Wanting to know more about the work and the artist, the gallery contacted artist Bill Whiting, who was Allen's boyfriend at the time of his death, and who had donated the work to the MAG.
The ghosts of long buried and emotional memories stirred, and as Whiting resurrected Allen and his own younger self, he began blogging about the art scene, his relationship with Allen, and the impact Allen and his death have had on his life. He turned the material into a novel, "An Early Work Late in Life: The Art and Life of Danny Allen," a searching, aching work about young love, shooting-star talent, and loss.
Allen was a largely self-taught, profoundly talented, and prolific artist whose work spanned different media, from photo-real paintings to loose sketches and drawings as well as collages and assemblages. He was one of the first artists in the region to openly address his sexuality in his work, and this was reflected in exploratory themes of gender, exultant bodies reveling together, hints of the pressure to conform, and a sly sense of humor.
Whiting currently resides in Philadelphia where he relocated after Allen's death. He worked remotely to develop the series of exhibitions with Antonio Petracca, a curator for the Italian American Museum in New York City and who was Rochester Contemporary's first director back when it was called Pyramid Arts. Petracca was also a close friend of Allen's.
"As the two of us looked at the body of work, we realized that we had a great deal more art than any one gallery could accommodate," Whiting says.
Petracca began marketing the idea to galleries and started a conversation with RoCo Executive Director Bleu Cease. Because some of Allen's work depicts nudity and sexual acts, and RoCo is a family-oriented space, Cease referred Whiting and Petracca to Gallery Q, which is less reticent to show work that contains adult content. Petracca formerly taught at Monroe Community College and connected with art professor Kathleen Farrell, the director of the school's Mercer Gallery. As time went on, Rick Muto of AXOM Gallery expressed interest in exhibiting Allen's work as well.
RoCo's leg of the show opened in early February in the LAB Space and closes on Sunday, March 18, and focuses on Allen's paintings, drawings, and collages. Gallery Q's exhibit, "The Gender Fluid Work," also opened in early February and runs until March 29, featuring Allen's ink drawings, watercolors, and some collages with LGBTQ subject matter.
Unlike Allen's tighter, often whimsical paintings, the Gallery Q show features loosely-rendered, often androgynous figures that either revel freely and joyfully or allude to anxiety through distortion of form and expression.
A provided essay by Whiting states that Allen was a troubled soul, "uncertain about where he belonged in this world — as he battled demons concerning his sexuality and his spiritual faith. His troubles were exacerbated by the use of experimental drugs — both pharmaceutical and recreational, and most certainly drug use played a large part in his decision to end his young life."
Allen's work was always evolving, Whiting writes, and though it held messages about life, love, and relationships, and he was surrounded by people who loved him, he suffered from an internalized self-hatred and failed to value himself. The work reveals the inner struggles of a sweet and lost young gay man whose potential "was never allowed to reach full fruition," the essay continues.
The show organizers took inspiration from Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" work with young people at risk. "All of us felt that it would be a wasted opportunity not to make an effort to bring awareness to depression and suicide," Whiting says.
At Whiting's request, the University of Rochester's Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide provided literature on the subject to each of the venues, and graduate students from the program attended the openings and spoke at Gallery Q. Whiting, members of Allen's family, and a UR clinician also addressed patrons on opening night. And organizers are exploring other collaborative discussions and events moving forward.
"We're talking about making contact with other organizations to find out about other artists who may have suffered and taken their lives — to perhaps broaden the scope with a traveling exhibit that zeroes in on depression and suicide in the creative mind," Whiting says.
Mercer Gallery's exhibition "Danny Allen and His Friends" opened on March 1 and continues through March 29, and includes Allen's work as well as pieces made in the late 60's and early 70's by artists who knew Allen: Whiting, Petracca, Kathy Calderwood, Julianna Furlong Williams, Eva Weiss, Steven Plunkett, Ramon Martinez, Yvonne Cupolo, and Albert Robbins.
The artists agreed to show their "youthful work in an effort to engage the MCC students by reaching out to them through our younger selves," Whiting says. On opening night Mercer held a public panel discussion, with speakers sharing stories about Allen and candid accounts of their reaction to his suicide.
AXOM Gallery's show, "Sunny Ducks & Other Musings," opened March 2 and continues through April 7, and showcases "Sunny Ducks" on loan from the MAG, along with other miniature paintings — some only three by six inches. These pieces are exhibited alongside their photo or collage references, collages that were never realized as finished artworks, and a number of drawings and sketches.
"Rochester in the late 60's and early 70's was, like most of the country, energized by anti-war protests, social change, and the sexual revolution," Whiting says. "I wouldn't say the entire city population was behind open sexuality for LGBTQ peoples, but there were pockets throughout the city where acceptance could be found," especially in the Cornhill district where Allen and his friends lived. "Dan and I did on occasion hold hands when walking down the street. There weren't ever any incidents, but perhaps we were just lucky? Dan had his own issues with sexuality and his Catholic upbringing that created personal conflicts. To this day, as out as I am, I still don't make a point of stating that I'm gay to new acquaintances until I feel that I'm on friendly ground."