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In the mystery zone

Taking the familiar and flipping it around is the specialty of backward- and forward-thinking Terry Allen. Just don't call him an artist.

March 07, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Ever since Impressionism, family values and contemporary art have mixed like oil and water. Artists gladly leave such buzzwords and issues to politicians. And politicians won't touch contemporary art with a 10-foot pole. Together, the opposing groups fuel the fires of divisiveness that make the present so sectarian.

Not Terry Allen, a multitalented master of multitasking who has no respect for unreasonable divisions, lazy habits or conventional thinking. A critically acclaimed songwriter, musician, playwright, filmmaker, sculptor and installation artist, Allen is a gentle malcontent whose love of life's complexity is matched only by the fearlessness with which he fights anything that gets in his way -- including himself.

For the last 10 years, the 60-year-old artist has been working on "Dugout," a multimedia project based on his memories of the stories his parents told in the 1940s and '50s, when he was growing up in Lubbock, Texas. Allen's father was a retired St. Louis Browns catcher who converted a Pentecostal church into an arena for acts he brought to town, including professional wrestlers, amateur boxers and rock 'n' rollers such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Allen's mother was a musician who played hotels and honky-tonks all across the Southwest, sometimes loading her son into the family car for her weekly gig at the La Paz in Santa Fe, N.M.

"I was an only child," says Allen, who today lives in Santa Fe, "so I grew up listening to old ballplayers and old musicians tell stories. They told incredible stories about the turn of the century and the first airplanes. Those stories were so alien to anything I knew as a kid. That's what this 'Dugout' piece really comes from."

An early incarnation of "Dugout" came in the form of a 1994 audio drama on National Public Radio. Since then it has grown to include "Dugout I," an exhibition of stage-like tableaux and 40 collaged drawings at L.A. Louver Gallery; "Dugout II (Hold On to the House)," a video installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art; and "Dugout III (Warboy and the Backboard Blues)," a multimedia play presented by L.A. Theatre Works at the Skirball Cultural Center. Also, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Institute of Art and Culture will feature a conversation Monday at 7:30 p.m. with Allen and his wife, actress Jo Harvey Allen (who performs in "Dugout III"), along with critic Dave Hickey.

The six tableaux featured in "Dugout I" all include old wooden chairs, many of which are set on weathered planks that resemble the back porches on homes in small towns across America. Such dusty mementos as an ancient baseball, an unstrung mitt and a broken wineglass suggest poignant trips down memory lane, but Allen throws a wrench into the machinery of easy sentimentality by including the garish glow of neon lights, some menace (a taxidermied wolf), plenty of comedy (a stuffed goose) and a palpable love of tales too tall to be believed but too harrowing to be forgotten.

"Dugout II" amplifies the confusion between fact and fiction. Built around the frame of an archetypal house suspended from the museum's ceiling, it includes even more family souvenirs, over the surfaces of which DVD players project looped videos accompanied by haunting soundtracks.

Despite the intimate subject matter of "Dugout," it shares little with straightforward autobiography. Allen says, "It's not really about my folks. In a way, they ceased being people as soon as I started making the piece. They become fictional character vehicles to carry the stories. They become climates. And they go through a series of phases, of changes and contradictions, interacting, moving in to collide with one another and becoming a whole other bundle of climates.

"[Dugout] is very much about a climate that feels mysterious. I think about my childhood in those times and the extreme paranoia. Fear of Communists. Polio. Thalidomide. At the time it was just normal. But as soon as you get some distance on it, you start being amazed by it."

When Allen was born in 1943 his mother was nearly 40 and his father nearly 60. "It was like being raised by grandparents. The distance between the time I was coming up and what I heard them talking about, about their childhoods, was so great, like two separate planets. I remember being mystified by it and wondering about it."

Well, almost. "But their world was a real different world from mine." Back in theirs, "before the bomb, a farm could be a world. A little town could be a whole world. But once that bomb got out, it was the world. Everybody was under the same umbrella.

"So ['Dugout'] is kind of a stacking of stories. The first stack was dealing with that other time, that earlier America." Allen's voice deepens and slows. Ever the skeptic, he refrains from over-romanticizing the past. "It wasn't about innocence. Oh, no. Because it's never been innocent in America. Never."

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