RA Schools Show 2023: Nancy Allen

Published 5 June 2023

In Deptford Market, Nancy Allen searches for objects she can transform in her sculptural work.

  • From the Summer 2023 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “Where we’re going to go, that’s where there’s the real gold,” Nancy Allen declares, as we weave up Deptford High Street through the market, turning left away from neatly stacked stalls into an empty car park beside the theatre. In front of us is an array of tables, and lines of crates filled with what looks like junk. “A lot of it is junk really, house clearance stuff, and stuff from building sites. But if you’re willing to look through it…” She trails off, a glint in her eye.

    Allen has been coming to Deptford Market since she moved to south-east London, making sculptural work out of the items pried from their conventional contexts. “It started in my second year at the RA. I used to make a lot with fabric and sewing, and I felt weirdly frightened to start using ‘found objects’ because they come with all this context and baggage. I felt that would be a hindrance, like the object would bring with it a life of its own, which is fine if that’s what you’re embracing.” Making things herself from scratch, she says, gave her a sense of authorship and control.

  • Nancy Allen, Stickpool

    Nancy Allen, Stickpool, 2023.

  • “To be honest, now, I think I only use objects if I can transform them into something else,” she continues, referring to her sculptures, which tease the viewer with meaning only to withhold it slightly, almost secretively, from view. A work she might include in her final-year show at the RA sees flattened foil party platters satisfyingly cocoon a shoal of sticks (Stickpool, 2023). “Those platters are a good example of the kind of material I like, because they’re physically beguiling, and have that joy of a party, of overflow – you’re buying them because you’re entertaining more people than you have crockery for. But then I like that they are strong enough to hold their own form, while still acting as a nesting device for other things.”

    As Allen rummages through crates, on the hunt today for kinked electrical cables from which she can make charcoal rubbings, I begin to glean a sense of what pleases her – those objects which hold within themselves the potential to describe or offset another. Other Allen-isms include pot-bound houseplants, where the congested roots delineate the contours of their cramped container. She likes making charcoal rubbings, she explains, so she can map and layer things. “When you transfer the physical form of one thing to another, it feels intimate to me. A kind of embrace. There’s something almost emotional about it as a gesture.”

  • Nancy Allen at Deptford Market

    Nancy Allen at Deptford Market

    Photo: Kemka Ajoku/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • Sometimes items Allen takes back to the studio languish for a time awaiting their purpose. A box of test tubes caught her eye last week, though their fate is, as yet, unknown. “I’ve got these moulds for making rocks for a model railway, but they’re so great, it’s impossible to make a work out of them,” she smiles. “It’s always good having things like that around.”

    Imogen Greenhalgh is Deputy Editor of RA Magazine.

    RA Schools Show 2023 is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 8 June - 25 June 2023.

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