Until a month ago, I didn't know Terry Allen from Adam, but all of the sudden, my mailbox was overflowing with announcements and press releases about a city-wide love-fest, celebrating his achievements as an artist, poet, songwriter, performer, storyteller and philosopher. To be honest, I was kind of embarrassed that I didn't know anything about a man of so many achievements. Not one or two, but four Los Angeles cultural institutions got involved in simultaneous presentations of various aspects of Terry Allen's creative life.
The L.A. Louver Gallery presents a crowded exhibition of his drawings, paintings, and multi-media installations, which includes a spoken-word soundtrack that's underscored with his own ragtime/jazz/blues music in the background. The Santa Monica Museum of Art is hosting the exhibition of the artist's video installations. The Skirball Cultural Center, in collaboration with L.A. Theatre Works, is the place for Terry Allen's live performances. And last but not least, LACMA got into the act by presenting an evening of conversation between the artist and his wife Jo Harvey Allen, and art critic/social commentator, Dave Hickey.
I asked around to find out what others in the art community could tell me about Terry Allen. People seem to admire him for his country music tinged with rock 'n roll. He's also beloved for storytelling on NPR, which fuses real and imagined tales of his colorful childhood in West Texas. When I went to see his L.A. Louver exhibition, I felt that his talent as a visual artist was not up to his reputation as a musician and storyteller. As a painter and sculptor, his craft, his command of the medium, doesn't match his artistic ambitions. Many of his drawings include voluminous text, which has to be read in order to get the complete message of his work. As far as I'm concerned, only an artist with a visual talent like Ed Ruscha can persuade me to read a word or short phrase incorporated into an artwork. Otherwise, I find that having, literally, to read an artwork can be quite tedious. And here, for me, that was precisely the case.
The Santa Monica Museum of Art makes a better case for Terry Allen as an artist with an original voice and ideas. His installations allude to empty houses, where video images are projected onto white on white interiors, augmented here and there with a taxidermic wolf, or a blue rat, or a turtle lying belly-up. The interaction between the video and the sculptural installations creates a wistful, melancholic narrative, not unlike the mood found in a typical country/western song. I thought that here, the various aspects of Terry Allen's artistic sensibilities merged together in an especially convincing way.
Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to his performance at the Skirball Cultural Center, but I did go to the evening of conversation with him at LACMA. A charming, self-effacing man with a sense of humor. And yes, a good storyteller. With so many artistic interests competing for his attention, Allen obviously believes that he's better able to serve his audience using all these various talents. But all I could think of during this talk, was what kind of an excellent artist Terry Allen might become if he would only commit himself to one particular artistic genre to tell his unique story. Let's say to only painting, or sculpting, or performing, or only songwriting....
DUGOUT I - Terry Allen
March 4 - April 10, 2004
45 N. Venice Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291
Phone (310) 822-4955
DUGOUT II (HOLD ON to the house) - Terry Allen
February 28 - May 15, 2004
Santa Monica Museum of Art
2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. G1
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Phone (310) 586-6488
DUGOUT III (and the backboard blues) - Terry Allen
Performances March 3, 4, 5 @ 8pm
March 7 @ 4pm and 7;30pm, 2004
L.A. Theatre Works at the Skirball Cultural Center
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Phone (310) 827-0889
March 8, 2004 @ 730pm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Phone (323) 857-6088
All DUGOUT images courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA and Roger Marshutz.