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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

March 11, 1990|KRISTINE McKENNA

"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."

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