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Getting Out of Town 

Terry Allen and his chicken-fried Gesamtkunstwerk

Thursday, Mar 4 2004
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Terry Allen is a great storyteller. You hear it in his conversation, and in the 10 or so albums of haunting, sardonic “alternative country music” he’s released since the mid-’70s. You hear it in the radio plays he’s put together for NPR and in the theatrical productions he’s collaborated on with David Byrne. But these are just fragments of a larger vision. If, as drummer Davis McLarty has claimed, Allen is a “chicken-fried renaissance man,” then his true medium is the chicken-fried Gesamtkunstwerk — a homespun total artwork that embraces all technologies of expression without succumbing to Wagnerian pompousness or shucks-ma’am hillbillyisms.

Allen, who was raised in Lubbock, Texas, moved to L.A. in 1962 to attend Chouinard, the school that eventually evolved into CalArts — but before that was the breeding ground for the Ferus Gallery artists who became the first internationally recognized generation of West Coast artists. It’s easy to spot the influences of the ’60s L.A. art world (particularly Ed Ruscha) in Allen’s text-driven, often humorous, stubbornly pictorial artworks, but he has a deep idiosyncratic streak of archetypal American restlessness and a complete lack of prejudice about using different materials or entire genres that is uniquely his own. Allen has lived in Santa Fe since the late ’80s, but he lived and worked in Fresno for the previous two decades, lured initially by a teaching gig. “I sort of fell into teaching like a hole with a little money at the bottom,” he says. Since excavating himself from that situation, he’s managed to get by as a working artist, producing numerous public art pieces. The first of these included the bronze businessman with his head embedded in the Citicorp building downtown, and a grove of trees at UC San Diego, some of which are fake and house storytelling soundtracks.

Still, it isn’t often that Allen gets to stretch out and fill a large gallery with one of his trademark rambling narrative-based installations, which run the gamut from painting, sculpture and drawing to video projections, taxidermy, neon and performance. His last such show in L.A. was 1990’s Youth in Asia, but Allen is back with a vengeance with Dugout, occupying both L.A. Louver in Venice and the Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station, plus several nights of workshop readings of a new theater piece at the Skirball Center. He will also participate in a LACMA Institute of Art and Cultures panel discussion with his wife and collaborator Jo Harvey Allen and longtime booster Dave Hickey. I spoke with the very busy artist over coffee about halfway through the installation of the SMMoA exhibit.

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L.A. WEEKLY: Dugout is a project that spans decades both in its storyline and the amount of time you’ve spent on it. How does it break down?

TERRY ALLEN: It started 10 years ago as a radio play for NPR, but I guess it really started when I was born. My dad was 60 and my mom was 40, and I was a big surprise. My dad had played pro baseball and my mom was thrown out of Southern Methodist University for playing jazz music and sitting in with a black band. They weren’t doing those things anymore by the time I got here, but there were always a lot of old ballplayers and musicians coming by and telling stories. I don’t know if it had something to do with my age, but about 10 years ago I started thinking about them. My mom was born in a dugout — a building made from a hole in the side of a hill — in Oklahoma, and my dad like I said was a baseball player, so the word “dugout” became this pivotal idea that I built a radio play around.

Part III came next, and it’s a theater piece that starts with the same couple, but their lives are disrupted by this alien adolescent Warboy that lands in their back yard, who is sort of me. We’re doing five performances here, and it’s going to be edited for an NPR show, and that will then be the soundtrack for the piece we’re installing now, which is Part II — sort of a bridge between the two.

 

A lot of your work deals with the human scale of war, and Dugout has a thematic current about it as well. There’s a line repeated in both versions: “America as usual is at war.”

That’s kind of when they meet each other. I did a bunch of drawings — of Stalin and McCarthy — and Stalin looks like Saddam Hussein and McCarthy looks like Dean! And Audie Murphy looks like Edwards! It just never changes. One of the main props in the theater piece is a picnic table where a lot of things happen, but at one point it gets turned over and becomes a bunker for playing war. I think Dugout is constantly addressing this fantasy of playing war — with the commies coming out of the bushes, or in terms of emotional problems.

  • Terry Allen and his chicken-fried Gesamtkunstwerk

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