It’s Saturday night with a flurry of gallery openings in Dallas.
I stop in at Holly Johnson’s new space, then head home, pop open a Shiner, turn on Blue Collar Comedy, and start overwhelming myself with the stack of info on musician and artist Terry Allen. In addition to Wishbone, a 20″ x 12″ cast bronze sculpture to be unveiled at DFW’s new Terminal D this summer, his exhibit Early Bronzes and Sketchbook Studies is on view at Holly Johnson Gallery.
Born in 1943 with thick roots in Lubbock/West Texas, his recently published book DUGOUT is a series of ‘poetic conversational vignettes’ about his parents: his father, a former professional baseball player- turned-music /wrestling promoter, and his mother, a honky-tonk piano player who was kicked out of college for playing in an integrated combo. Though presently living in New Mexico, Allen is still considered a Texas mainstay who “spews out one of these epic works every decade or so” according to essayist and musician David Byrne.
"I am currently just beginning a body of work tent, called Ghost Ship Rodez. It will eventually be a number of drawings, sculptures, music and a theater piece dealing with an event in the life of the great French theater/writer/artist visionary, Antonine Artaud. This project will be shown in Lyon, France next year. I am also working on several public projects and the re-issuing of two of my older cds, Pedal Steal & Rollback, on Sugar Hill Records."
Allen offered up a group of over 100 sketchbook studies, of which owner Johnson managed to highlight 16 staggered behind seven bronze sculptures placed atop old school art pedestals made by partner Jim Martin. The studies embrace the traditions of sketchbooks by J. M. W. Turner, Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo Da Vinci in their ability to literally and figuratively bind a specific time and place in an artist’s life. Traditionally, Allen is known for telling stories of the past. In the construction of these early works, he seems almost clairvoyant.
"”Clairvoyance” doesn’t rhyme with “Annoyance” for nothing."
– Terry Allen
Void of the music or performance fanfare that usually accompanies a good Terry Allen yarn, the sketchbook studies are surrounded by diagrams, notes, self-censure, quotes, names, numbers, poetry, humorous anecdotes and whatever else was going on in Allen’s mind/environment at the moment. In this case, the moment was the late 1980s. Several of the works are frighteningly in synch with politics of the present.
First, I caught myself looking up at the bronze Enterprise, representing, quite literally, the phrase “thumb up your ass” — but placed about 8 feet in the air, where the full graphic spectacle, shaped like the Star Trek mothership, could be appreciated. It is in Enterprise, Guarding the Buddha, and Study for Shoe in which “forced entry” on current cultural and political scales ring thematic. The “baggagargoyles,” illustrated and eventually realized for the Denver Airport, and the study Fuselage give prescience to fears and obsessions we now have with “national security.” The cash-green painted bronze of a businessman/politician in the larger-than-life Bust is slashed violently by his own machete-like tie, slicing and doubling his skin and clothing layers about like shifting tectonic plates. Though closer in conception to the time of George Bush Senior’s presidential inauguration (and the likeness of the image was intended to be anonymous), the piece bears an uncanny resemblance to 43, who was not even elected governor of Texas until 1995.
Viewers are also introduced to a variety of yet-unrealized studies. Two Mirrors illustrates a proposal to place a monumental series of mirrors on each side of the Texas/Mexico border each facing the other. Car Cage involves an empty car in a cage moving back and forth like a “trapped animal.” Another study, Road House, creates a covered bridge/tunnel from salvaged vehicles, for a Bridges of Madison County effect. With the open research and development of the themes, one can’t help but want to see them realized on an I-35 scale.
Most of the studies take into consideration Allen’s various ideas for possible sound, light, geography and movement. As might be expected, many of the works have images on both sides. According to Johnson, people spend a lot of time in the gallery reading the text. Though fairly tame in content, one is still perversely intrigued as though privy to something quite secret. Because the sketches in mixed media are so technically consistent, richly illustrated and inviting to read; the bronzes, though helping in the realization, seem to fight against what one’s imagination develops from Allen’s fascinating descriptions. The two lone pastels seemed even less necessary after Johnson offered me a peek at the back stock of sketches and photo studies. Fortunately, found in his intense, chaotic scribbling, is plenty of that West-textured humor and depth that Allen is appreciated for. Fun to view and read, this collection of works done mostly in the late 80s also makes a variety of eerily accurate statements about our current obsessions.
Images courtesy Holly Johnson Gallery
Maria Sheets is a writer living in Dallas.