Terry Allen is master of multiple media
August 17, 2007
Brands Bronzes Buddhas, an exhibit of new works by Terry Allen, covers territory from the Far East, where the artist has spent considerable time, to Allen’s native West Texas. (“Brands” refers to artwork Allen makes using cattle brands.) The show, on display through Sept. 12 at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery at Aspen Highlands, employs materials from bronze sculpture to drawings to the “brands” work, which comprises both the forged metal brands themselves, and the stamps he makes on paper using those branding irons. Allen’s sensibility can be comic – as in “Control,” a branding iron that is 12 feet long, and thus beyond anyone’s physical control. He can also be deadly serious; his bronze piece, “Kings X,” is the image of a forearm, with a razor blade embedded in the wrist. Most often, the art conveys a blend of ideas: the painting “Costume” features both a skull and a clown; “Twain” is a single face, half of it shorn clean, the other half furry to the point of ape-like. The presence of the Buddha image in his work suggests peacefulness but when I mentioned that, Allen shot back, “Obviously you’ve never been to Vietnam.”
The range of materials, cultures and ideas in Brands Bronzes Buddhas, broad as it is, represents only a fraction of Allen’s artistry. The 64-year-old was in Aspen last week, setting up the gallery exhibit and working at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. But prior to the opening of the show, he had to dash to Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to perform in a concert tribute to Lowell George, the late founder of the rock band Little Feat. Allen is a country-folk singer-songwriter, who has released nine albums, the most recent on the respected Sugar Hill label. His first album, 1979’s “Juarez,” is an unsettling concept album set among border-town characters; it rises to the level of cult classic. (Last month, Allen performed for Anderson Ranch’s National Council.)Among Allen’s newer interests is theater. In 2000, he created “Dugout,” a work that encompasses installations and drawings, songs and theater, that is loosely based on his parents. The production – which was turned into a 2005 publication – features his wife, the actress Jo Harvey. Allen is currently at work on another theater project. “Ghost Ship Rodez,” a work-in-progress that was performed last year at a theater festival in Lyon, France. The piece is based on an episode in the life of the mentally tormented French playwright and actor Antonin Artaud. Allen’s piece focuses on the 17 days during which Artaud was chained to a metal cot in the bowels of a ship, as he was being deported from Ireland to France. The title refers to a mental asylum where Artaud spent several years.Allen envisions “Ghost Ship Rodez” as similar to “Dugout” in its sprawling format, with an exhibition, an installation and a theater piece. “But that’s right now,” cautioned Allen, a gangly man with wide-set eyes and high shoulders, dressed all in black as he sat at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery. “It’s going in a lot of directions all at once. But that’s how it’s always gone. I’ll make one thing and the next thing I know, I have 20 pieces, or 15 songs. And I don’t try to keep that from happening.”
Allen tracks his overlapping interests to his childhood. The Lubbock of the mid-20th century wasn’t a cultural hotbed. But what activity was going on, Allen found himself in the middle of.Allen’s father, Sled, had been a baseball catcher, who put in some time with the old St. Louis Browns, and a lot more time in the minor leagues. Following his baseball years, the elder Allen owned a dance hall that had been converted from a gospel church. As Lubbock’s lone entertainment center, Sled Allen’s place hosted all kinds of shows, from wrestling to music.”Because it was heavily segregated, Friday night was all black musicians – Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Blues Boy King, which is what B.B. King was called then,” said Allen, who sold set-ups – buckets with ice and lemons and limes – to concertgoers. Then Saturday night was the Saturday Night Jamboree – Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff. Without even knowing it, I got to hear the whole thing that was going on in American music at that time. Except for jazz.”In fact, Allen did get a taste of jazz. His mother was a pianist who specialized in the barrelhouse style. When Terry was in junior high, with rock ‘n’ roll starting to explode nearby – Buddy Holly too was a product of Lubbock – he got interested in music. His mother sat him down at her piano, taught him the W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (which plays a significant role in “Dugout”), and told Terry he was on his own musically.Even more involved in drawing than music as a kid, Allen went to Los Angeles Chouinard Art Institute. There, in the mid-’60s, he found an atmosphere that nurtured his diverse interests just as Lubbock had.
“It was a grand time to be in Los Angeles,” he said. “The energy – all this stuff was breaking loose. Artists were working with sculptors, dancers were working with painters. There was all this cross-breeding of ideas. And music was the most volatile form of expression going on. Everybody wrote songs.”Allen joined a blues band, which seemed a natural thing for an art student at the time. “It never seemed like a separation to me, just a normal way to proceed,” he said. “You made things.”Allen doesn’t think the things he has made – the songs and sculptures, installations and branding irons – share one sensibility. “I don’t even think people will hear my music from one period of time and my music 10 years later and see a connection,” he said. “I’m not all that interested in style. I’m interested in exploring what’s going on at the time.”But if there is a characteristic that runs through much of his work, it is the juxtaposition of humor and dead-eyed seriousness. The idea of making art from a tool like a branding iron contains that duality in itself, but the concept is amplified in the content of the work. One piece is titled “All Artists Try to be God and Will Burn in Hell”; the brand itself contains those words.
And Allen is serious about the need for a sense of humor.”You don’t sit down and say, ‘OK, I need a sense of humor now,'” he observed about using humor in his art. “But I think a sense of humor is essential to getting through this fucking life. Sense of humor is important to opening a lot of doors to letting you do something.”You need to be cold-blooded serious in the studio. But when it gets out in the world, you’d better have a sense of humor about what happens to it out there, because it’s a crazy world.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org