Ain't Enough

Terry Allen on everything, including baseball, passion and the art of epic lying

Fine art, that exists for itself alone, is art in a final state of impotence. If nobody, including the artist, acknowledges art as a means of knowing the world, then art is relegated to a kind of rumpus room of the mind, and the irresponsibility of the artist and the irrelevance of art to actual living becomes part and parcel of the practice of art. --Angela Carter

It's one of the most persistent myths of our culture, that talent manifests itself in only one area of a person's life--when, in fact, people who are talented at one thing frequently tend to be talented at others.

Romantic notions of the solitary artist favor the myth, however, which is so entrenched in Western thought that we speak of "artists and madmen" as natural confrères. So when one stumbles across a maverick like Terry Allen--an eminently well-adjusted artist, musician, storyteller and public speaker on matters artistic and cultural--the shock of having one's preconceptions blown can be severe.

Not that Allen is unfamiliar with the madness that, along at least one trajectory, is the constant companion of the human animal.

"If there are any unique revelations to be had about us, as a species," he says from his Santa Fe home and studio, "I think they're to be found in those radical outsider characters who appear--or we create--from time to time. Whether they're outlaws or gangsters or murderers, nothing's diluted for those characters. It doesn't really matter, finally, whether their passions are positive or negative; anything you make, you strive for that same kind of undiluted passion."

Much of Allen's art--visual, musical and otherwise--has centered around giving voice to such radical outsiders, a sort of spiritual collaboration among a marginal family. "I've always thought about it like, when you're involved with creating art, you have three natural kinfolk: You have the Child, because you're working in a state of innocence; you have the Criminal, because you're breaking rules and laws; and you have the Insane, because you're actually making another world. When all those things work together, that's when the good stuff happens."

The full Allen vitae (available online at www.terry-allen.com) runs several pages and reads exactly like what it is: a thumbnail sketch of a man who can't keep his hands still. Briefly: Terry Allen has recorded one undeniably classic sorta-country album--1979's Lubbock (on everything); has adapted his musical work for radio theater; has been both a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellow; is a 1997 inductee to the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame; has been commissioned by institutions including UC San Diego and George Bush Intercontinental Airport; and has pieces in the permanent collections of roughly two dozen museums and art centers--including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA.

Allen's work schedule has scarcely slowed since 1966, the year he received his bachelor of fine arts from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (now known as Cal Arts). The road that led Allen from Lubbock to California (where he was based through the 1970s and much of the 1980s), and from thence to New Mexico, has been chronicled in many pieces along the way. His current major project, however, finds him reaching back to his Lubbock boyhood for its inspiration and much of its format.

The impetus for Dugout, the working title of that largely narrative piece, comes in large part from his parents; Allen's father was a pro ballplayer for the St. Louis Browns, and his mother played piano in silent film houses and in professional combos.

"I grew up hearing old baseball stories and music stories," he says. "There were always people at the house telling stories--sort of a constant 'bullshit party,' where it became kind of competitive. And I've kind of built this piece based on all of the different stories I heard from my parents, and from all the people who used to come through the house. They were such great, epic liars," he says, laughing. "That's very important for an artist."

Though Lubbock itself may not play a crucial role in the piece, it certainly contributed to Allen's sense of narrative aesthetics.

"Anybody who grows up in West Texas, the art of storytelling relies on your visual imagination, because there's nothing else there," he says. "The place I grew up in was so flat. I used to like to say that on a clear day you could look to the horizon and see the back of your own head--which does have kind of a Zen quality to it, I guess.

"[Dugout] is based around these stories, and it's already pretty involved." Allen estimates he'll be working on it at least through 2004; Section I of Dugout will be on exhibit at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art through July 27. (See "Crimes of the Art," May 23.) He's now performing songs and spoken word from Section III, Warboy (& the backboard blues). "The time span covers the first half of the 20th century. It actually started life as a projected radio show, and, like a lot of stuff I do, it kind of evolved into a series of possibilities--dramatic, paper, visual, all sorts of outlets. Two of my art dealers have gone together to sponsor it, so we're able to build the whole thing as we go. We're doing an initial performance on the 30th of May at the Dallas Museum of Art," he muses, "which is probably going to be pretty incoherent."

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