By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Allen uses Artaud's 1936 trip to Mexico (where he bounced around giving dismally attended lectures, engaging in quarrels and trying to crash peyote rituals) as a way of turning the European playwright into a doomed wanderer of the Western wasteland, a typical character in Allen's work. The folk-art lettering, map shapes and nature imagery of Allen's past work figure prominently. In the "radio play," the recorded version of a stage show that is piped in through headphones at a listening station in the gallery, even the country songs Allen is known for, are made to fit the plight of the brain-sick Artaud. An earlier Allen composition, the haunting "Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven?" has been repurposed as leitmotif on the recording.
The French culturati at the art organization that first commissioned the piece initially were nervous about Allen's act of portraying a famous French theorist via iconography of the American West. "We were there a month in 2006 building this piece," Allen explains, "and they were concerned at first that the French audience (which can be pretty cold-blooded) could be real resistant to what we were trying to do. Especially since we were coming from 'Bush Country,' as they called it. France and the U.S. government were not on good terms at that particular time, so we caught a little of that political tide."
An American expat was hired to mollify the difficult French audience by explaining the challenging English text, delivered with a twang by Allen's wife, Jo Harvey Allen. He recalls, " 'It took somebody from Bush Country to bring Artaud back to the French people,' they wrote, which was over the top, of course!"
In the work, Allen turns Artaud into a kind of Malcolm Lowry character, a not-so-innocent abroad looking for redemption in all the wrong places — a common country music trope as well. Lowry, the addled, boozy British writer of Under the Volcano, looms large in Allen's imagination: A 2010 book that surveys Allen's career (a collaboration of sorts with pal Hickey) begins with an epigraph by Lowry, a prayer asking God for help in making art out of seemingly random obsession. "If my motives are obscure, and the notes scattered and often meaningless, please help me to order it, or I am lost. ..."
Hickey points out that Allen, like most songwriters, is a devoted notebook keeper, collecting "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."
Whether Artaud's work and influence gave him, posthumously, that fragile order out of chaos that Lowry and Allen longed for, or whether he died lost is debatable. Allen hints at an answer in a simple drawing he calls Smile (Momo Chronicles). It's a straightforward black-ink portrait of Artaud's aged face, that face that originally fascinated him at City Lights bookstore in the '60s. Momo, an endearing word for a holy fool, is what Artaud called himself in his madness. Over Momo's impenetrable mouth, Allen superimposes a blood-red smile.
Terry Allen's "Ghost Ship Rodez: The Momo Chronicles" is on view at L.A. Louver until April 16.