Published in VAULT: Australasian Art & Culture, Issue 6, 2014.
With the launch of his new Paris space Galerie Allen, Sydney curator and publisher Joseph Allen Shea is defying perhaps even his own expectations.
“It is not possible!” Joseph Allen Shea declares. It’s a phrase the Australian gallerist and publisher has heard regularly since decamping Sydney for Paris last year. “Ce n’est pas possible,” he continues, “has been said to me everywhere – the post office, the bank or when dealing with bureaucracy. The French say no at first, then you work around it to find a solution.”
Australia, in contrast, is the land of the hurried yeses – a product of our can-do attitude where everything is possible. “Aussies tend to overpromise,” Allen Shea laughs, his trapezium moustache shuddering slightly. “We say yes first, then we figure out why something can’t happen.” However, he is quick to point out that regardless of each culture’s angle, the middle ground remains the same: find a way to make something possible.
Allen Shea is certainly a man who makes things possible. Trained as a graphic designer, he founded IzRock Mixed Business in 2005 and began publishing books and exhibiting works featuring Australian and international artists. Realising his strength lied in helping artists promote their work, he went on to run Monster Children gallery for six years, during which he curated 60 exhibitions.
For his next project, Gallery A.S., he went offsite, challenging the contexts of art and surroundings by transforming unusual spaces such as a church, an abandoned sex shop and a film studio lot into sites for art. He became a prominent figure in the Sydney art world, with a circulating profession of writing, editing, publishing, curating, gallery directing and creative consulting.
“When you market artists, you distribute their ideas to the public,” he offers. “And as art changes, the presentation of art has to change with it. I want to follow what artists are doing. If an artist changes their practice, breaks rules, comes up with new ways to show art, then I must adapt with that.”
Another challenge – perhaps his most ambitious – came two years ago in the form of a house-sitting favour. Mel O’Callaghan, an Australian artist living in Paris’s Montmartre, needed to make a brief trip to Lisbon, which meant finding short-term custodians for her dog Charlie and home studio – a converted printing factory she bought six years ago. Allen Shea, who has previously curated O’Callaghan into one of his shows, happened to be travelling Europe at the time with his wife Sinéad and newborn son Ellwood, and the couple agreed to housesit.
“Instantly we became infected by Paris – its beauty, its lifestyle, its culture,” recalls Allen Shea. “The amount of concert halls, theatres and museums and the generous volume of support for the arts was profound. People here place culture at the forefront of their considerations.”
The Allen Sheas began to consider relocating to Paris permanently and when Mel returned home she suggested converting her street-front atelier into a 40-square-metre white cube for the curator to activate. And so it happened: the family found a place to settle in Montmartre and a school for Ellwood, and in September 2013 Galerie Allen opened its doors to the public, boasting a stable that included Hany Armanious, Sister Corita Kent, Maurice Blaussyld, Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, Ben Quilty, Colin Snapp, and Mel O’Callaghan, who, alongside Allen Shea, acts as the gallery’s co-director.
There is a benefit to having a curator-artist duo at the helm of a gallery. As artist and landlord, O’Callaghan is able to guide Allen Shea on running the gallery with the artists in mind, enabling them to create the best work under ideal conditions. Allen Shea, meanwhile, commandeers the curatorial and presentational logistics such as marketing, distributing, branding, installing and loaning (“you know, the boring stuff,” he jokes).
“Actually, it’s been nonstop since we moved to Montmartre,” he confesses. “Sometimes I just want to do something repetitive like pack boxes and wrap artworks. It’s good to step off the treadmill sometimes, let the mind wander. Problems are best solved during moments of solace.” While many tourists associate the Montmartre of today with neon-emblazoned peep shows, tacky souvenir shops and Amélie film tours, it’s also reputedly Paris’s main arts district, with workshops, art supply shops, galleries and cafes dotted throughout its maze of side streets and fringe areas.
On the weekend Galerie Allen opens its doors for the first time, I happen to be in Montmartre and arrange to meet Allen Shea. Touring me around the space, the 35-year-old looks the part of a gallerist. He speaks eloquently about his stable, has a seismic knowledge of international contemporary art and is donned dapperly in a white collared shirt, slate grey jumper and black pants.
The gallery chose to debut with an exhibition by revered French mixed media artist Maurice Blaussyld – his first solo effort since slipping into obscurity following the death of his gallerist 10 years ago. His resurfacing has attracted a legion of artists, curators and buyers to the space, and now it’s up to the gallery to retain the momentum.
With Galerie Allen a short stroll from Gare du Nord, the station that connects France to the rest of Europe, Allen Shea intends to amplify the arts market osmosis between Australia, Europe and the world by capitalising on his and O’Callaghan’s existing portfolio and networks. He still keeps an office in Redfern (“more like a storage room”) in case project opportunities arise. But for now he remains anchored to a white cube static, admitting “it’s comforting to be within four walls again.”
Four months on and we catch up again via a video call. “I notice I’ve been spending a lot of time in the bath,” he confides when I ask how he’s settling in. “Maybe it’s because I miss the ocean back home. I was in my bathtub the other day trying to recreate fake bodies of water – that ripple, that whoosh!” As he reminisces about his childhood, Allen Shea comes to a realisation. “I never thought of this before, but my father was a cabinetmaker and kitchen installer, and watching him transform various surroundings may have sparked an early interest in how I approach and respond to spaces in my work.”
Presently, the gallery is exhibiting prominent Australian artist Hany Armanious, who represented the country at the 2011 Venice Biennale. As Allen Shea shows me installation shots of the artist’s pigmented polyurethane resin and bronze works, he becomes convinced that Armanious’s ability to turn the “everyday mundane” into art is why he sits well with European audiences.
We then discuss the gallery’s upcoming exhibitors, which include the late serigraph artist and nun Sister Corita Kent, best known for pioneering America’s 1960s West Coast pop art movement (Allen Shea first featured Kent at Campbelltown Art Centre, and is working closely with her Los Angeles estate to bring her legacy to French audiences); Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, a young French artist whose photographs, texts, sculptures and videos explore narratives in advertising and social interaction; and Colin Snapp from California (a recent addition to the gallery stable), whose photographs and videos seek to reveal man’s contemporary relationship with nature. As an extension to the gallery, Allen Shea is also in talks with artists and curators to host artists’ residencies in Bordeaux.
Allen Shea is learning the French language (“I can have conversations and order food confidently now”), his son Ellwood is now three and enjoying school, and Sinéad, an accomplished fashion stylist, continues to pick up freelance work.
In addition, the couple, who wed five years ago and combined their surnames – his Allen, hers Shea – are collaborating on a new online publication called Deca, which will act as an inspirational global look at the fields of art, architecture, design and food, and is slated for release this year.
Of particular focus are people who are making a difference to progress culture, but who don’t necessarily get credited. “Expect a few people who are doing their best work, but who still sit comfortably outside the limelight,” he says.
For the Allen Sheas, everything is possible.
Galerie Allen – 59 rue de Dunkerque 75009 Paris, France.