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March 4 - April 10, 2004 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice
February 28 - May 15, 2004 at Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica

by Diane Calder

The Marlboro man has moved overseas in search of greener pastures and Levi’s are no longer made in America. But presidential handlers, promoters of super-sized vehicles, and others astute in the politics of representation continue to value the power of myths of “The American West.”

Texans have a reputation for using storytelling as a kind of cultural portraiture. “Maybe it's growing up on this immense flat ground where everything is so much bigger than you are - the weather, the distances between where you are and where you'd like to be …” explains artist/songwriter Terry Allen.

Allen concentrates on the process of digging up very personal stories of the highs and lows of his parents’ lives for Dugout, his multi-media art and theater production playing at multiple venues in Los Angeles. He describes Dugout as “A made-up world, constructed and based on true stories and lies I heard as a boy, growing up on the flat sprawl of West Texas. It is about baseball and music and a man and woman who play them both across the endless idea of America during the late 19th- and the first half of the 20th-Century.”

Dugout I, the portion of the ambitious fabrication installed at L A Louver, is built around six “stations” depicting the emotional landscapes of Terry Allen’s parents’ lives. Paintings, drawings and poems support the three-dimensional installations stacked with a myriad of elements: old chairs, a toy piano, taxidermy specimens, neon graphics. Taped narrations interlaced with music personalize and vitalize the installations, inserting the rhythmn of language into the mix and increasing the viewer’s temporal displacement. Actress and singer Jo Harvey Allen is cast opposite her husband on the tapes and will star in Dugout III (and the backboard blues), a new multimedia performance for national public radio being recorded early in March at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Terry Allen explains his lack of prejudice about materials by saying, "It's kind of a natural thing to me. I'll start drawing and take one idea and kick off another idea, and maybe that will start a song. I guess it's just an innate restlessness. I think it's also coming up in the ‘60s.”

"Stage 1: Ancient," 2000/01,
multimedia, 97 x 96 x 78 1/4".

“Stage1: Ancient" (detail)

“Stage 6: Infinite", 2002,
multimedia, 156 x 180 x 120".

“Cairo,” 2002, wood/sheet
music/oil stick/gouache/ink/
pastel/piano keys, 61 x 49 x 3”.

Allen was in California working on his BFA at Chouinard in the mid '60s. That period saw the wedding of language, music and performance with visual imagery in the work of artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Alan Kaprow, Yoko Ono and Bruce Nauman. The search for sculptural materials in the everyday world was being popularized by members of Arte Provera in Europe and folks like Ed Kienholz closer to home.

Some of the boards in stages built by Allen look as if they might have been pulled from Kienholz’s woodshed. But Dugout is a more diaristic aesthetic than that of Kienholz. Allen leans farther towards structure, symbolism, time’s passage, theatrical effects and the use of music and the written word. He references digging out stories, his father’s world of baseball and his mother’s birth in a house dug out of earth.

Terry Allen calls attention to his role as storyteller by using chairs as focal points in Dugout I. He suggests that, “Chairs are really places for ghosts for me.” Two chairs appear joined at the hip under a coyote wrapped in neon in the first stage. It’s here that we glimpse his parents’ first understanding that his father will succumb to cancer. Later, in Infinite, one of the most lyric, layered and beautifully envisioned of the tableaus, the gentle curves of the chair tumbling at the end of the arc produced by a truncated tree edged with tombstones that are shaped like bases represents Allen’s mother, and also reflects the cursive script used by the artist to suggest her voice. That imagery echoes the arc of a boy’s body thrown into a river to sink or swim, as well as the grown man’s broken, bleeding fingers releasing a baseball into the sky. And of course, anyone familiar with Bernini’s sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, can read even more into this tableau.

Allen is not shy about using graphic narratives and imagery. Love Seat exposes the glimpse a young girl gets of her father penetrating the plump ass of the religious fanatic he has hired to teach his daughter to play the piano. Allen’s mother is described as a crimson lipped Mary Magdalene-like figure, “burning down the house,” playing the devils music. Although Allen has a history of treating religion satirically, it’s difficult to look at Dugout I without realizing that much of its imagery is rooted in religious art. Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in particular comes to mind, with its dramatic resurrection scene triumphing over an initial view of panels closed over the truncated, lacerated outstretched arms of a crucified Christ.

Dugout II (hold on to the house), which will be installed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, was under construction as this review was written. It purportedly will be “A visual bridge between Dugout I and Dugout III, a skeletal house suspended above the museum gallery floor.” Expect Terry Allen to be “raising the roof” again.