Crimes of the Art

Terry Allen, a West Coast conceptualist with a Southwestern twang, has been at the scene of just about every art-world crime in the past three decades. It isn't entirely his fault. Born in Kansas, raised in Lubbock, Allen attended L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) in the mid-'60s, which, of course, explains everything. Inculcated with Duchamp's anti-art aesthetic, nursed on Fluxus and on the notion that technique matters less than marketing, surrounded by examples like Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha, Allen became, somewhat inevitably, a conceptual and installation artist. As Allen describes himself on his résumé: "Independent artist working since 1966 in a wide variety of media including musical and theatrical performances, sculpture, painting, drawing and video." He's also a printmaker, songwriter, writer, promoter and bona fide character. Like many artists with like dates of birth and CVs, the 59-year-old Allen can best be described as a semi-professional anarchist, someone who refuses to be hemmed in by traditions or boundaries but doesn't carry the shtick so far that he's courting involuntary confinement.

This is good and bad. While Allen probably isn't cooking C-4 in the microwave, he's something of a jack of all trades--and a master of none. Dugout, Allen's new exhibition at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, shows that, 35 years later, Allen has still not strayed far from his roots. Dugout is a textbook example of "installation art," that tired blend of theater, music, assemblage, sculpture, poetry, neon and short story, with a little drawing and painting thrown in on the side. It is also a radio drama (for NPR) and a project that "will include numerous multiple media visual works [think video], installations [think galleries and museums], a music theater piece, CD and/or DVD and a book" [think wampum]. In short, it symbolizes much that is half-baked, overhyped and just plain common in the art world.

And yet, damn it, Allen's new series of installations is also enormously entertaining. Dugout is a multimedia presentation that tells the intertwining life stories of an Oklahoma man born about 1886 and a Texas woman born around 1905. Using audio, props, sets and drawings as background, Allen relates his tale in the manner of a life-sized, three-dimensional comic strip. The yarn unfolds in a series of rooms, each featuring a central "stage" with props--chairs, trees, stuffed animals, neon words, painted backdrops and, naturally, dirt scattered on the gallery floor. Each stage is surrounded by a series of eight to nine gouache, pastel and ink drawings and collages, each one illustrating an attached or incorporated bit of text.

Taken together, the works form a narrative the artist describes as "based on true stories and lies I heard as a boy growing up on the flat sprawl of West Texas." The man is a semi-pro baseball player; the woman, a musician and torch singer. Eventually they find each other, marry, have a son, grow old. The story itself could be based loosely on the lives of Allen's parents, or for that matter my grandparents or my best friend's grandparents; it's pure Texas noir, as moody and hard-boiled and atmospheric and romantic as a novel by Jim Thompson. At once utterly authentic and utterly contrived, filled with symbolism that hits all the stereotypical Texas notes: violence and religion, poverty and folk wisdom, drinking and sin, forgiveness and redemption, birth and death and baseball. It is as regional as anything painted by the Dallas Nine and just about as mannered.

In form as in content, there is absolutely nothing new here. Allen's posturing is as old as Marinetti, his three-ring productions as familiar as the Russian Futurists' Storming of the Winter Palace. As for execution, Allen is a competent painter with a strong graphic sense and a fine, if somewhat conventional, colorist. His sense of theatricality is flawless, and he knows how to evoke a mood, through the threatening Texas skies, through the look and placement of text, through the violence of images. He owes something to Edward Kienholtz, to Robert Rauschenberg, to Bert Long. But the heart of Allen's work, unlike the work of these predecessors, is narrative, rather than image-based. Allen is all about the spoken and written word, and in this way Allen remains remarkably true to his conceptualist roots.

And yet, for all the tired mayhem, for all the sensationalism and blatant manipulation, I found Allen's installation a curiously apt way to relate this tale. Maybe it's the Texan in me, an inherited weakness for cheap theatrics, for demagogues and buffoons, or at least for a good yarn. But there are far worse places to spend a gallery-going afternoon than in Allen's Dugout. Yee-haw, and pass the biscuits, Pappy.

One of those worse ways is to wander down to the McKinney Avenue Contemporary's current show, Essential Spaces, which features sculpture and installations by a trio of Texas artists: Cameron Schoepp, Tom Orr and George Smith.

Of the three, Schoepp, whose work is featured in the first gallery, is by far the most intriguing. The Fort Worth-based sculptor has created an installation of pale yellow carpet, pale yellow walls and three massive stone forms that vaguely resemble 4-foot-by-4-foot travertine hats scattered on the floor. In the middle of the carpet, one can just make out the words "my ass" embroidered in pale gray. As you look about the four walls, you can make out similarly cryptic slogans, in pale gray and featuring mysterious capitalization: "FAT HEAD," "TUFF TITTY," "gutless wonder" and finally "LIVER LIPS."

Schoepp's goal seems to be to play not only with our perceptions of scale, but also of purpose. He wants us to wonder about intent, and we certainly do. Is he suggesting an utter disconnect between visual form and human language, between the natural and the man-made? Or is he suggesting some affinity between the words and the three shapes? Unfortunately, Schoepp's silent slabs of rock yield no clue, lying there, cold and mute and inscrutable.

Next door, sculptor Tom Orr's three sculptures are easier to read and less rewarding. Like Schoepp, Orr, an associate professor of sculpture at the University of Dallas, explores connections between the man-made and nature. His first piece, "Veil," is a three-dimensional meditation on op-art themes of altered perception, movement and space. It consists of a long, black-and-white striped fabric panel that straddles the corner. In front of it, some 70 or so steel rods are suspended from the ceiling, creating a shimmering optical illusion similar to a mirage. It's not to be viewed with a headache; the visual effect produces not only pain but irritation in the viewer, mainly because it's unclear what new lesson we're supposed to take away from this old op-art trick.

Ditto for the large work across the way, a massive (approximately 10 feet high by 40 feet long) rectangular wall consisting of 3-inch squares covered in gold-bronze shades of metallic paint. The massive wall rests against an impressive A-frame wooden support. Like much of Orr's previous work, this one seems to be about the mechanics of the world about us, in this case the architectural bones of a man-made structure. The third piece in this room is a sculpture made of a long piece of wire mesh, which staggers horizontally along the wall like a graph of the Dow Jones over the past six months. It casts an interesting and pretty shadow, but the work is trite.

The final gallery contains painted metal sculpture by George Smith, a Houston artist who also teaches at Rice University. Smith produces vaguely Afro-centric forms with strong geometric elements and tiles that invoke themes based on legends of the Dogon people of Mali. The most interesting work is an installation of 10 X-shaped forms that rest on the ground like so many sandwich boards or paper dolls. The work is briefly interesting but slight and forgettable.

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Christine Biederman

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