ART REVIEW : Allen Captures Pain of U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

Times Art Writer

You can take an artist out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of an artist. Or so we thought of the multitalented Terry Allen until he installed “Big Witness (Living in Wishes)” at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (to Feb. 13).

Though he has lived in California for 20 years--long enough to be considered a native--Allen usually filters his art and music through a sensibility that was shaped in Lubbock, where he grew up. “Big Witness” stalks wider turf, digging into American pain over Vietnam and the mood of self-involvement that pervades the country.

Worked out in gray tones and muffled sound in a darkened room, the sculptural installation seems downright Minimal. There’s a lot going on, but it isn’t the usual stuff for Allen. No rowdy music, no passages of sad poetry, no bright touches of kitsch.

The piece is a 9-foot-tall screened house that sits in the middle of the gallery, but it isn’t a Texas-style Heartbreak Hotel. It’s a psychological jail. Inside the house is an oversized couch, built of wooden struts and upholstered with a fine screening material. A 6-foot block figure of lead-covered wood lies under the couch and spouts recorded self-help messages. You find yourself looking into a cage within a cage and finally seeing an immobilized, mechanical vestige of a human being.


Instead of baring his soul to a psychiatrist from the usual position or adopting the couch-potato mode, the zombielike character lies on a dirt-covered floor and offers monotonously upbeat counsel on how to lose weight, kick alcohol, improve attitudes and get rich. The sound track--90 minutes of voices randomly overlaid with 60 minutes of “subliminal music"--is too irritating to follow in full, but here’s a typical tip: You are much more likely to accrue wealth by doing “something you truly love” than through investments. If you really want to get rich (and most people don’t, according to the tape), you must be in a “business that really consumes you.”

So who wants to hear this from a popular artist/musician who has given us foot-stomping country music and such poetic delights as talking trees? Probably no one, but that’s not to say “Big Witness” is a dud. On the contrary, it may be the most sharply focused, restrained piece of art that Allen has made in years. As you look through claustrophobic containers made of real screen and hear psycho-babble that screens out real feeling, you are forced to consider a burned-out Me Generation--summed up in one flaked-out wreck.

Well, then, is this show a turning point for Allen? Probably not. Instead, “Big Witness” is among the final salvos in a 6-year series called “Youth in Asia” that issued from the Vietnam War. Allen’s particular concern is with outcast Amerasian youth and American military men who stayed in Southeast Asia after the war. There’s no literal connection between those social issues and the form of “Big Witness,” but the emotional tie is strong. It’s probably only natural that Allen would wrap up the series in a relatively pure statement that reaches beyond the war itself.

Allen suggests that America’s disenchantment with a fight it couldn’t win and the trauma of a conflict that won’t go away have seeped into the national consciousness and stuck so tightly that we have withdrawn into a caged existence. All that’s left for people who can’t think or act is to live in wishes and follow recorded advice.


“Big Witness (Living in Wishes)” will travel to Moore College, Philadelphia; the Madison Art Center, Madison, Wis., and the University of Arizona, Tucson, after leaving Santa Barbara.