Mixing Fact, Fiction and American Lore : Multimedia artist Terry Allen delivers a eulogy for and an indictment of the dark side of the human soul

"My dad was born in 1886 and he was 60 years old when I was born," recalls artist Terry Allen. "Both he and my mother came to Texas in covered wagons--my dad from Tennessee and my mother from Oklahoma. They were kids at the time and their parents went West in search of better land and wound up 60 miles outside of Amarillo in a little place called Brice Flats. My grandfather fought in the Civil War, and my dad was too old to go to World War I--that's kind of mind boggling, isn't it!? My parents made me real aware of how close history is."

Histories--the ones we read in books and the ones we invent about ourselves--are a central theme in work by Allen, a man who comes on like a down-home cowboy but is, in fact, an enormously complex artist. Steeped in American lore--particularly the rowdy mythologies of the region he hails from--Allen has been exploring the intermingling of fact, fiction and desire that shape our memories since his 1966 debut exhibition at L.A.'s now-defunct Gallery 66. That he's not better known can only be attributed to the fact that Allen is the sort of artist who bristles visibly at the mention of words like success and career, and he's never put an ounce of effort into art world politicking.

A shrinking violet when it comes to art world schmoozing, Allen is ferociously driven when it comes to work itself, and he seems to have a foot in every creative camp. In addition to his considerable achievements in painting, sculpture, drawing and assemblage, Allen is known for his powerful installation pieces, and is an accomplished writer of poetry and prose. He's written and performed several radio dramas and large scale theater pieces (he's about to unveil two new ones, "Juarez" which debuts this week at the Brattle Theater in Boston, and "Pioneer"), and has worked in video and film. He's a well-loved cult figure in the world of country music too, having released five critically acclaimed albums of original songs.

Though opinion is split as to whether Allen addresses the same themes in the different mediums he employs (Allen's dealer Peter Gould of the L.A. Louver Gallery says he does; Allen's friend David Byrne of the Talking Heads rock group says he doesn't; and Allen himself says he doesn't know), the theme of memory crops up in all of them.

"Our memories are constantly at play in our daily lives, and ultimately there's no difference between the real and the imagined," says the 47-year-old artist, during an interview while briefly passing through Los Angeles on one of the rambling Southwestern road trips he takes to keep the creative juices flowing. "Stories are embellished with repeated tellings, sequences get turned around, and we pick and edit the information we want to include in the stories of our lives. And this is how we invent ourselves."

Allen's inquiry into the inner workings of memory and history have taken him into some rather dark terrain--in fact, this soft-spoken, self-effacing man has turned out some of the most searingly violent art this side of Francis Bacon. A cycle of work from 1976 titled "Ring" chronicled the disintegration of a marriage, and many early pieces explored the cold-blooded cruelty that takes place between lovers. However, those raucous portraits of domestic strife proved to be mere child's play compared with what was to follow.

The savage undercurrent of Allen's sensibility reached a crescendo with "Youth in Asia" a series of approximately 60 works exploring the aftermath of the Vietnam War which occupied him for six years. Begun in 1983 when German film maker Wolf-Eckart Buehler invited Allen to do the sound track for a film on American vets living in Thailand, this harrowing body of work focused on the lives that refused to be pieced back together, rather than with the war that blew them apart.

Though Allen didn't fight in the war himself, he had several friends who did, and he witnessed firsthand the enormous difficulties they faced in their return to civilian life. A symphony of toxic memories that reveal the American Dream to be the grim reaper disguised in patriotic drag, "Youth in Asia" includes some unbearably grisly passages. "Torso Hell," for instance, a play written as part of the series, is the graphically told story of a soldier who's reduced to a torso after all his limbs are blown off.

"Yeah, some of that work's pretty rough," Allen concedes, "But Vietnam was no Disneyland. Well, actually, it was Disneyland--Mickey just got his legs blown off," he adds with a grim laugh. ("Youth in Asia," in fact, employs Disney cartoon characters as symbols of the distortion and manipulation of American ideals).

Surprisingly, Allen's intensely challenging art sells quite well (prices range from $15,000 for small graphic works on paper, to $40,000 and up for objects and large scale installations), and the people who follow his work find it neither morbid nor exploitative.

"There's a lot of death and destruction in Terry's work," Byrne says, "yet it's not pessimistic because there's a life affirming energy running through it that makes it more than just doom and gloom."

A rangy Texan with the requisite drawl, blue jeans, and cowboy boots, Allen has taken up temporary residence at the Santa Monica apartment he and his wife, actress Jo Harvey Allen, maintain for their frequent visits to L.A. A modest, one-room dwelling decorated with bits of folk art, a vase of red tulips and a list of upcoming projects taped to a wall, the apartment has the size and ambiance of a motel room--which no doubt suits the nomadic Allen just fine.

On this visit to L.A., from his new home in Santa Fe, N.M. (Allen, Jo Harvey and their sons, Bukka, 22, and Bale, 21, recently moved there after having lived in Fresno for 18 years), Allen comes off as an affable man with a highly developed sense of irony and rather dark sense of humor. Sustaining himself during a Sunday morning meeting with cigarettes and mineral water, he does his best to wiggle out of the interviewer's questions.

"Talking about art is like trying to French kiss over the telephone," he quips.

Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1943, Allen was an only child and was raised in Lubbock, Texas.

"My mother was a ragtime piano player and my dad was a professional baseball player when he was young," Allen recalls. "When he got older he was a sports promoter and on weekends he threw dances, so there were always musicians, old ball players and other transient people coming through town and visiting us."

When Allen was 15 his father died, and on his deathbed, offered his son his business as a wrestling promoter, but Allen had other things in mind. After graduating from high school he enrolled at Texas Tech, where an encouraging art teacher suggested he check out the Chouinard Art Institute in L.A., after Allen failed every class except drawing. So in 1962, the same year he married his high school sweetheart Jo Harvey, Allen made his way West, finagled his way into Chouinard, and graduated with an art degree in 1966.

The roots of Allen's mature style are clearly evident in early pieces from that period. Staunchly American work that combines Ed Keinholz' intermingling of horror and beauty, the melancholy disillusionment of playwright William Inge, Sam Shepard's fascination with domestic disaster and Jack Kerouac's love of the open road, Allen's art is at once a eulogy for and an indictment of the dark side of the human soul.

"Everybody's got a mean streak in them," Allen observes, "and we all have to figure out where it is in us and how to get it into a box. Sometimes it jumps out of the box at inappropriate times because none of us are as programmed as the New Age, how-to-salvage-yourself movement would like to think."

A populist artist who claims to have been affected more by literature than visual art (he cites Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, Malcolm Lowry and the great poet Hank Williams as central influences), Allen presents simple soap opera stories as divine allegories. Fascinated with language and the capacity of words to deceive, Allen, like cartoonist Stan Mack of "Real Life Comics," often incorporates things overheard in public places as a reliable barometer of the national pulse.

"People have always played the biggest role in shaping my art," Allen says, "and I've always been more interested in what's going on with people out in the world than what's going on in the art scene. I've never felt any interest in carrying the 'ism' ball to the next 'ism.' "

Incorporating low art motifs--cartooning, a rough graffiti drawing style, salvaged objects--Allen's work has a look of easy accessibility, but in fact, it's highly sophisticated and demands a careful and patient reading--not because it deals with particularly arcane themes, but because it usually deals with several themes simultaneously and involves multiple layers of story, visual pun and double entendre.

Unlike much art, which attempts to distill a single theme to an easily graspable essence, Allen's work mimics the sensory overload of real life, and his work can be frustrating because it's constantly in the process of metamorphosing. The gestalt here is fragmented and chaotic--one has the sense of being enveloped in swirling clouds of confusion pierced by fleeting moments of illumination. Residing in that moment of suspended animation when one crosses a real or imaginary border, his work refuses to yield any sense of conclusion or closure. Allen says he intends that his work give off the dislocated rattle of border towns--a primary source of inspiration for him.

"When I see a border town I feel like I'm looking at the American Dream in a funhouse mirror," Allen says. "You cross this line and all of a sudden you can buy anything--and you can sell yourself as well. Thailand was like that too, because there are aspects of that country that echo the crassest parts of American culture."

The Mexican/American border town of Juarez is the launching point for Allen's newest theater piece. " 'Juarez' is this kind of endless thing for me," Allen says. " 'Juarez' was the title of my first record album (released in 1975), it was one of my first bodies of work, and now we're finally taking it to the stage."

The story of two pairs of lovers whose chance meeting results in the murder of one couple by the other, "Juarez" is a road story designed to function as an allegory for Cortez's journey and subsequent annihilation of the Aztec culture. In preparing for the piece, Allen has been traveling the route the couples in the story follow (a loop that takes them from Juarez to Cortez, Colo.), and taking pictures along the way with photographer Doug Hall. As in much of Allen's work, the automobile and the open road are central motifs in the piece.

"Driving for long stretches was a big part of my life when I was growing up in Texas and now as an adult, it's a real restorative thing for me," he explains. "Driving makes me realize the world is bigger than me and my troubles, and I like the combination of input you get on the road. You're listening to the radio, thinking about something and looking out the window at something else. All these things are happening simultaneously and maybe feeding into something that's gonna' happen down the line. I get out on the road and never want to stop! You know, I used to love L.A. because it was a great car town. You could really breeze around this place in a car, but those days are over. Now I can't wait to get through this freeway stuff, get out of San Bernardino and head towards Cortez."

Before Allen slips out of town, he'll put a bit of time in on a major outdoor sculpture he's racing to finish. Scheduled to be unveiled in September in front of Citicorp Plaza in downtown L.A. as part of the Poet's Walk series (which pairs visual artists with poets for a single work), the piece, done in collaboration with poet Philip Levine, is something of a departure for Allen who's not a big fan of public artworks.

"I'm doing a bronze figure of a businessman, and I must say, this was a real challenge for me because I've never worked in bronze before and have really only done one outdoor piece--a grove of lead trees in San Diego. I've had lots of offers to do exterior pieces but I've said no because I've never liked outdoor art. I'd rather see what's out there, regular, and have always had an aversion to that heavy metal outdoor sculpture. They always strike me as pointless embellishments that exist just because somebody needed to prove they could afford a big lump of art. It seems like it ought to mean more than that. As to what I want to say with my piece--well, it's called 'Corporate Head,' and I just hope it opens up some kind of possibility for the front of that building."

In addition to working on "Juarez" and the Citicorp piece, Allen is in the midst of writing "Pioneer," a theater piece that will have its debut in May at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and will be presented at UCLA later this year. Completing his frantic itinerary is a visit to the Chicago Art Fair in May and a series of spring concert performances in Washington and Virginia.

Regardless of how much is happening with his visual art (and there's usually quite a bit going on), Allen has always maintained a steady commitment to music. Beginning his career as a member of the Blackwell Blues Quintet in the late '50s, Allen went on to host a country music radio show, "Rawhide and Roses," with wife Jo Harvey on KPPC in the early '60s. His five albums of original material (mostly straight-ahead country recorded with his Lubbock-based group the Panhandle Mystery Band), and almost three decades of performing have won him a devoted concert audience, however, his records have never achieved the wide acclaim his fans feel they deserve.

"I don't know why Terry's records aren't more popular because I think they're the greatest," says Byrne, who recruited Allen to co-write a song with him for the soundtrack of his film "True Stories." "Terry writes really good lyrics, very direct and funny and moving, but his songs fall between the cracks of all established formats. His music isn't quite country and it's not quite rock, but the themes he deals with--family, love, religion, violence--are so universal it seems like anybody could relate to them. I don't know why some company hasn't picked his records up and tried to market them. That that hasn't happened probably has a lot to do with why he isn't better known. It probably also has something to do with the fact that Terry's not a hustler when it comes to his music, and unfortunately, you have to be to a certain extent."

As might be imagined, the audience for Allen's music is a peculiar mix that includes, art world high brows, rednecks and country music buffs.

"It often happens that I'll play a club one night and a museum the next and the club is invariably a lot more fun to play because people in that situation respond to music much more directly," Allen says. "You get in an art crowd and everyone's preoccupied with trying to figure out what they're supposed to be thinking. By the time they figure it out, the show's over."

Though the art world provides Allen with a good living, he clearly has some problems with the pretensions and greed that are part of it.

"When I hear the word 'evil," the first thing that pops into my head is 'rich,' " he says. "I'm not saying all rich people are evil, but our culture does base itself on greed, and the human impulse to take more you need causes a lot of trouble. Obviously, the art world is a realm of conspicuous consumption. I think that aspect of art is bull, and the prices art is commanding these days is like Mars to me. For me, art has always been about the making of the thing, and if all the art clearing houses burned down tomorrow, there'd still be people who had the urge to make art. So, as far as the money thing, I try to distance myself from what happens to my work after it goes out into the world because that isn't my concern. I've got my hands full just trying to get my work to do what I want it to."

'Everybody's got a mean streak in them, and we all have to figure out where it is in us and how to get it into a box.'

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