This is Terry Allen's book. I have been trying to decide what kind of book it might be. Failing that, I've been wondering what kind of book it may be like. It's an art book, but not like any catalogue you've ever seen. It is not that personal nor very scientific. It's not that scholarly, nor even that complete. It's neither theoretical, nor pedagogical, nor willfully entertaining. It does not position Allen in art history. The relationship of Allen's art to the art of his contemporaries is generally coincidental, a product of their sharing an arc of time. The relationship of Allen's art in this book to the totality of the artist's work is that of a snowball to a planet. As trimmed down as it is, this book contains a flowering proliferation of stories, songs, dramas, maps, notebook entries, lists, objects found and made, images found, drawn, or photographed. Everything is singular, and everything is related.
Searching for analogies, I poked around in my library and found four books that spoke to the issue in various ways. First, I found a crusty, early-twentieth-century compendium of photographs and drawings entitled The World of Giuseppe Verdi, then a book of photographs by Martin J. Dain called Faulkner's World. Finally, I pulled out two estate-sale catalogues, one for Jackie Kennedy and one for Andy Warhol. The estate sale catalogues recommended themselves because they are rough-hewn biographies, lives expressed by a collection of mismatched objects—the random progeny of whimsical shopping, daily utensils, unsought gifts, and personal trophies. Allen's work has this same happenstance logic of discovery, casual acquisition, and personal attachment—of finding one particular thing at one particular time then letting a world accumulate around it, in rough contingency, nothing quite fitting or not fitting.
As an icon of Terry Allen's practice, I would select a group of works by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penoni, who took negative castings of his friends' heads and grew gourds inside of them. The resulting fruit bore traces and territories of human likeness, a nose and eye here, a lip and chin there. The rest would just be gourd—as the estate sale objects are part Andy, part Jackie, and part just human junk. Terry Allen's work has a similarly uncanny aura of nature and culture, nature and nurture, jammed and blended into one strange object. The appropriateness of the Verdi book is self-explanatory, since Terry Allen makes his own brand of opera and, like this book, his operas are full of contingent creation: music, song, dance, couture, drama, and spectacle. Grand Opera is governed by its traditions and its history. Its moving parts are always there, all the time. Terry Allen's brand of opera is more serial and pragmatic. The artist presumes that every idiom is always available to him, but that some idioms do some things better than others, so his individual works tend proliferate into a constellation of genres.
Narratives, songs, dramas, drawings, installations, films, collages, and sculptures each do something the others can't. So, with all of these options at his disposal, Terry Allen selects the idiom most suited to his local intention. Then, if a pastel drawing of a bird suggests a song, a song comes forth. The idea is to not miss the exit, to take the chances that present themselves and let the line of least resistance lead him on, as Jesse Winchester once sang and Edith Wharton once wrote. In the crunch of actual practice, of course, this line of least resistance, across boundaries from the pastel drawing to the song to the sculpture, is often the line of most resistance, but Allen allows himself to be led until a scrap of dialogue or scrap of film or some unseemly object whispers, "Exit here!"
If this exit leads to the sculpture of a boat or a new narrative, the bird and the song may have to be dispensed with or mightily revised. The sculpture itself may have to be revised in the aftermath of these revisions. This logic of infinite return, of obsessive recursiveness, of writing then writing over, can look a little crazy from the outside. And it is a little crazy, as if the artist were perpetually remodeling his consciousness. There is genuine madness and darkness here, but no confession or self-pity. One can only judge the size of the wound by the size of the bandage, the elegance of the sutures. Even so, one cannot help but think that if the artist were not required by circumstance to submit his works for exhibition, he might well be spinning still in the midst of some perpetual, eternal elaboration of the first image he ever drew, the first song he ever wrote.
The factual world, however, demands that some things stop and others begin, although the option of revisiting the past always remains. Given these circumstances, I like to think of Allen's operas as beginning with some fugitive kernel—some accidental gift of fate that presents itself when needed at the right place and at the right time. JUAREZ begins with an ancient drawing of a pig-killing machine that Allen felt compelled to copy. Allen's meditation on the Vietnam War, YOUTH IN ASIA, as befits its scale, began with a handful of kernels: an instance of posttraumatic stress over a bowl of peas in a restaurant in the Southwest, a newspaper article about the U.S. Army experimenting with bombs attached to bats guided by sonar, and an overarching historical vision of Allen's Native American neighbors in New Mexico (whose ancestors crossed the land bridge from Asia) being scooped up during the Vietnam War and shipped back to Asia to fight their own people. This circle is matched by a counterflow of European Americans who were sent to Asia to fight and stayed to live as Asians.
Allen's method is a songwriter's method, designed to skim the cream off the world rushing by. He keeps notebooks. There are hundreds of them, shelves of them, accumulated over the years, filled with scraps of texts, pieces of lyrics, scrapbook images pasted in, drawings, schemata, and lists. When I was a songwriter I used to keep notebooks. I can testify to their efficacy, because nothing comes out whole; everything presents itself in pieces, in scraps of things you've read, things you've heard, things you've found in the road or seen on television. The notebooks are the scroll of ongoing whispers, insights, talismans, and touchstones—everything in a row as it happens. The piece you make is a codex extruded from the scroll, the characters and calamities you assemble out of them. The verse to the song may be on page 900; the chorus may turn up on page 1210; the title may be scrawled in the margin somewhere back on page 7.
As John Ashbery once remarked about his own prolific output: "It's just like television. There's always some on"—and there's always something going on. In this sense, Allen's works don't necessarily grow from a single kernel. They grow together from scattered kernels in a project driven, in Allen's case, by what seems to be a primal anger so totally sublimated into his work that the artist himself is a fairly pleasant fellow. These kernels evolve into "knots"—imaginary events of operatic intensity, compressed, recompressed, and then compressed again, as if all the anger, injustice, violence, and repression in the panhandle of Texas and northern New Mexico were being bound up and then exploding out through a tiny vent—blood in the fountain in the zocalo, murder in the trailer in the Sangre de Cristos, the Lubbock lights flying like a "V" of geese, flying, across the night sky.
This, I think, is why I pulled out the copy of Faulkner's World, because the panhandle of Texas and northern New Mexico are Allen's Yoknapatawpha County, his own private country that rests like a transparent scarf across his native land. There are digressions to Germany and Bangkok, but Faulkner also took the occasional sojourn. The song remains the same, and sometimes I think of Allen's career as a nocturnal mail train dropping off a few bales of bad news at every stop in a landscape—that, among all the blood and explosion, provides the unifying element in Allen's work—that and the steadiness of his style, his mark, and his manner of putting things together. Without these the whole affair explodes; to change one or the other would be to sink the ship, occlude the vision. Embraced by this landscape and the landscape of Allen's style, streams of narrative, biography, history, and culture flow through these knotted narrative moments and out again. Allen traces their interplay, their convergence and dissipation into the silent aftermath. But all of this inference of "story content" must come with caveats, because Terry Allen does voices, images, and things, but he does not do realism.
Occasionally he will do wit and even kindness in his public sculpture. Bankers occasionally insert their heads into their architecture. Newscasters pose with their shoes in their mouths. The gargoyles that you always knew were there lurk like vultures over the luggage pickup, eyeing your belongings. Everything is real but nothing is verisimilar. Nothing that you might actually see in the world is depicted, nothing is even surreal, because surrealism infers a starting point in reality. The songs are sung by disembodied voices. The stories are told by voices with regional accents. The drawings are drawn because otherwise we could not see what they are about, so they are better read as heraldry, or glyphs, or typologies than anything like pictures. Allen's objects are compressed and jammed together as we might remember the city of Juarez in a dream, as one bizarre construction with a tilted door and neon lights. The Navajo warrior sent to Asia is transformed into a Kachina Knight trapped in a droning mist of American psychobabble. The wrestling ring that forms the center of a family's business becomes the site of the family's battles and tragedies. The work, then, depicts a realm of invisible actors made stranger still by our collusion with them and with the places they inhabit. Not only are there no happy endings. There are no endings.
Terry Allen is a visual artist and songwriter who has received numerous awards and honors, including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and induction into the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame. His art has been shown throughout the United States and Europe and is represented in major private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles. He has also recorded twelve albums of original music, including the classics Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything).
Dave Hickey is one of America's best-known art and cultural critics and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. His books include Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy and The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. He has written for many major publications, including Rolling Stone, Art News, Art in America, Artforum, Harper's Magazine, and Vanity Fair. Currently, he is Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Marcia Tucker was a highly regarded curator of contemporary art, as well as a freelance art critic, writer, and lecturer. She was the Founder and Director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City and was series editor of Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art, five anthologies of history and criticism.
Best known for his long-running column, "Letters at 3 A.M.," Michael Ventura is a cultural critic who cofounded the LA Weekly and now writes for the Austin Chronicle. His latest book Cassavetes Directs, a memoir of John Cassavetes, was published in England in 2007.