What began with two-dollar acrylic paints and butchers paper has become an exploration of identity featured in leading Sydney galleries.
“I guess I’m part of a bunch of different subcultures,” says Yugambeh/Bundjalung artist Shaun Daniel Allen (Shal), describing the opening night crowd at his debut solo exhibition Balun – meaning “river” – in May 2021. The professional tattooist (who also sings in a handful of hardcore bands) recalls how it differed from the usual art world set, even by the somewhat edgier standards of China Heights Gallery in Sydney’s Surry Hills. “There was Mob from all over and people I knew from doing graffiti, mates from tattooing and people from the punk world as well. All of my friends in one spot.”
His works – contemporary, fluid explorations that Shal says made themselves known as water without any conscious intent from him – came about as a form of meditative escapism, painted on the floor of his garage as he grappled with issues of identity and connection. “Painting turned into a way to connect with the deepest parts of myself. I grew up on the [Gold] Coast and in the waterways of Northern NSW. When I look back at my childhood, all the good times revolved around water.”
It was an introduction to Edward Woodley and Nina Treffkorn of China Heights Gallery that took Shal’s paintings from personal explorations to something more, with the duo offering him first a residency and then his own show. “I can’t even believe any of this stuff has come from me just painting with two-dollar acrylics on butchers paper.” And it’s big stuff, by any standard.
Since Balun opened last year, Shal’s meteoric rise has included high-end sales through China Heights, live-painting at the Art Gallery of NSW and the Powerhouse Museum and, recently, a mural inside Sydney’s boutique Ace Hotel.
The artist’s evolving process reveals a move towards natural dyes, in particular ochre, something he’s been learning to forage up on the Gold Coast and that’s featured more heavily in his November show. “It’s nice when people buy stuff but it’s not what drives me,” he says, adding that his greatest reward has been the conversations his works have prompted with people who have had similar experiences. “I didn’t realise being vulnerable would make people so vulnerable in return.”
Exhibited at: China Heights Gallery, Sydney; Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney; Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Breakthrough moment: “Seeing my name go from the associate artists list to the represented list at China Heights Gallery.”
What the critics say: “On opening night, people just sat on the floor and cried.” – Edward Woodley, artist and China Heights gallerist
Image credit: Maxwell Finch