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."
But the best of Terry Allen's art is--don't say incoherent, say messy, in the best possible sense. If Allen's projects share a dominant format, in fact, it's most likely "public" art, which is to say pieces that occupy spaces other than museums and galleries. In moving from the safe indoors to the rowdy streets and outside venues, public art attempts to remove the distance between the art and the appreciator. Which is all fine, in theory. But as Angela Carter provocatively suggests, the connections between art and public life are rare enough, without the artist indulging in a rarified approach to the work. And it's in this milieu that Allen's multipronged approach to the work is, perhaps, most remarkable.
Take the Lubbock album's multivoiced stories: "The Great Joe Bob," about a high school football star turned luckless stickup man, or the rollicking "Oui (A French Song)," concerning a failed sculptor who goes to work on a factory line ("It weren't art," says the narrator diplomatically, "but it weren't bad"). Salivation, released in 1999, the most recent entry in his recorded catalog, continues in the vein of those skewed perspectives: "Hold on to the Good Book," he advises on the title track, "but don't hold your breath."
Or, for a hit of Allen's more diabolical side, seek out 1983's Bloodlines, an unjustly neglected album that examines the nexus of faith, family and frustrated desires of all sorts. Specifically, have a listen to "Ourland," on which the narrator gives barely restrained vent to his most warped romantic fantasies: "I fancy a knife inside my pants/Bone-handled razor sharp/And we'll run ones that survive the blast/And cut them in the dark."
Like novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose fiction interrogates the bloody history of the American West, Allen's excursions into darker terrain examine the sources of violence, not simply its superficial replication--a primary distinction between faux pop-culture violence and the truly unsettling kind to be found in work like Allen's.
"And [violence] can be so subtle," he says. "I always think it's funny when we get to the point, like now, where it seems like violence is as common a thing as what's on special at the grocery store. It gets to the point where we think of it as neutral, when, of course, it's not that way at all."
In the end it's the work that keeps Allen going, of course, and not the critiquing ("I don't think about the state of the art much," he admits at one point; "I'm just trying to keep from drowning in my own"). Nonetheless, he's sometimes called upon to speak to students at art programs; he recently gave a talk in Seattle on his composition methods, for the University of Washington's Public Art program.
"With public art, I told them, probably the last thing you need to do is go to art school; what you need to do is go to law school. That's how you're going to find your way through the necessary contracts and so forth. Mostly, though," he continues, "when I talk to students, or anybody, I talk about the process. One of the radio shows I did was a revisitation of Juarez [a 1975 album that began life as accompaniment for a series of illustrations], and in it there's a line about how in America, it's the motion that's holy, not the destination. I think that was maybe true when I wrote it, but I'm not sure it's true anymore. It seems like these days everyone's concerned about where they're going, and not what the trip is. For me, the destination's always an excuse.
"I think, in a way, it has to do with options: A lot of people's options that they have for themselves are so limited. You find that a lot in schools; kids' dreams for themselves are so awfully tiny, compared to what they could be. There's a whole world to roll around in. But I don't know if people want to roll around in the world," he says with a laugh. "First of all, you get stopped at security for hours. Plus, you tend to get dirty. You end up gettin' a little on you.
"In a funny kind of way," he concludes, "that's what Dugout is about--the idea that when you make stuff, as opposed to just taking stuff, there are a lot more surprises. No doubt about it: You get to lead a much more interesting life."
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