several catalogues, at least two plays, a collection of songs, and four major installations with accompanying sound tracks.2
Like the pun intended in his choice of a title for this series, both the visual and verbal material are meant to stimulate new meanings and connections beyond those that are overtly stated.3 The overall impact is such that Allen's presentation purposely "fuses (confuses) art and life."4
The national tour of the "Youth in Asia" exhibition between 1992 and 1994 brought Allen's work to the largest audience of his career.5 Although represented in major museum collections and recognized since the seventies for performance works such as Juarez (1969-76) and The Ring, which combine elements of theater with narrative and music, Allen has always resisted the idea of having his art submerged into the mainstream. His unorthodox approach to art-making certainly derives in part from his unusual upbringing and experiences in the West Texas town of Lubbock. His work not only represents an unusual mix of media and disciplines, but also demonstrates a particular regional perspective. "He turns regionalism," one critic concluded, "into a positive force that reverberates beyond provincial borders."6
Already described as an "aspirant to universal genius" by Artforum in 1970, Allen has an inclusive working style that can be traced to both an absence of certain high cultural influences and an abundance of the more populist kind.7
Both the visual and verbal
material are meant to stimulate new meanings and connections . . . .
The unusual vocations of Allen's parents affected him as well. His mother was a barrel-house piano player and "the first woman to be kicked out of [Southern Methodist University] for playing jazz," according to Allen's colorful account.9 His father, a former baseball player with the St. Louis Browns, became the local impresario after the family's move from Amarillo, Texas, to Lubbock.
He turns regionalism . . .
into a positive force that reverberates beyond
Out of this background, Allen has evolved an aesthetic that offers "a Buñuelian vision of red neck, Bible Belt, cowboy country and the languages and textures of those zones . . . the America of tent-meeting revivalism, truck-driver wisdom, trailerpark life, and circus sideshows."12 It is this down-home quality in everything he does that disarms the audience into experiencing the profound nature of his art. "He exposes spooky truths while looking hokey."13 The twang of his speaking and singing voice, and the cowboy-poet lilt to his verse and narratives, finds its visual parallel in the collage/assemblage ensembles of materials he uses in the multimedia installations, sculptures, and painted panels of the works in "Youth in Asia."
Allen describes the series as "an extended meditation on the personal consequences of geography and memory."14 The geography involved is that of Southeast Asia as well as the American Southwest.
Allen offers "a Buñuelian vision of red neck, Bible Belt, cowboy country and the languages and textures of those zones . . .
the America of tent-meeting revivalism, truck-driver wisdom, trailerpark
life, and circus sideshows."
The memory Allen refers to has a twofold nature. In creating the "Youth in Asia" works, he relies on his memory of the Vietnam era as a bystander to the conflict, as well as that of the friends and relatives who actually went to the war. "Youth in Asia" is not so much about the actual events of the war as about the remembrance of it, particularly in the context of veterans returning to the American Southwest. Allen's focus on memory also has another dimension. He wants to make sure that we remember not only events and places, but the human loss of those who perished and the physical and emotional devastation of those who survived. This war, like all wars, was hell.
Allen's creations are meant to ensure that we will never forget the social costs that war demands, especially from the young.
In late 1983 Allen already had begun what would become the first work in the series when he was commissioned by a German film company to do the sound track for a documentary called "Amerasia." The film focused on Amerasian children and the Vietnam veterans who had chosen to remain in Southeast Asia rather than return home, as well as those who had returned there after finding themselves unable to adjust to postwar life in America.
To collect ideas and materials for the sound track, Allen traveled to Thailand. There he hooked up with a Thai band -- a move that familiarized him with the music of Southeast Asia, as well as with the instruments used to play it.
Buddhists and Hopis, Laos and Taos (New Mexico) . . .
all these weird
parallels and incredible collisions made a kind of sad sense for
The first "Youth in Asia" group, beginning with The First Day (Back in the World) and ending with China Night, concerns the return of the young veterans to the United States ("the World" was soldier slang for America), some alive and physically intact, others mutilated, and still others -- the dead -- who are able to return only as memories.
Evil and good, death and life are all embodied in the same versatile substance.
The First Day, like many of the wall pieces in the series, consists of a lead support on which text is etched or attached along with other fragments, including hair, photos, feathers, and postcards. The text, in this case three disorienting poems entitled "Morning," "Afternoon," and "Evening," and the images and assemblage elements function as an ensemble, while "the individual elements . . . acting alone and together, set up a multidimensional manifold of narrative pathways."19 Allen has carefully chosen each of the materials to achieve the maximum associative resonance. The choice of lead as the principal material was meant to evoke the Vietnam Memorial and the coldness of death in its slablike presence. It was meant to remind the viewer of bullets and shrapnel as well, all made from this poisonous metal. Allen has pointed out that "the surface of the lead is always changing, oxidizing to the tune of its evironment [depending on] humidity, etc."20 Allen has also referred to lead's soft, almost fleshlike malleablility, which adds another dimension to the material's metaphorical repertoire; evil and good, death and life are all embodied in the same versatile substance.
Four works from the second part of the series executed after 1985 have been chosen for "American Kaleidoscope." Two are wall pieces in lead with mixed media: The Creature and Sneaker; one is a freestanding mixed-media construction, Good Boy; the fourth is an installation piece with sound, Treatment (angel leaving dirty tracks).
These works also draw attention to the half-truths, lies, and propaganda used to make war and the sacrifice of the young palatable to society.
Good Boy, with a design resembling that of a small altarpiece, again juxtaposes the so-called familiar -- an armchair and shaggy rug of an American living room -- with a stylized landscape that could represent Southeast Asia or the desert terrain found in New Mexico. The piece was inspired by the story of a Roswell, New Mexico, man who, having failed at all his attempts to conduct a normal life after Vietnam, committed suicide in an armchair placed in his front yard.
They say God has a plan for each person. . . .
I just don't
know. . . .
The Creature, a tripartite wall piece, is also suggestive of an altarpiece, with its triptych and predella. The triptych's center is dominated by a Walt Disney-like rendering of a cartoon character. The wings provide a clue to her identity: Tinker Bell, Peter Pan's Never-Never Land guardian, is recognizable despite having "been slutted up some."22
Allen captures the hallucinatory and visceral
nature of the mental turmoil associated with the soldier's recall
of his dehumanizing and disorienting Vietnam experiences.
As in Good Boy, images on the left and right -- one an orientalized landscape and the other an interior with armchair -- define the "here" and the "there," the two poles of the vet's universe. The text consists of words and expressions in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese balanced on both sides by the I Ching character translated as "Influence (Wooing)," which was formed by interweaving lead strips and strands of human hair. In this piece, Allen captures the hallucinatory and visceral nature of the mental turmoil associated with the soldier's recall of his dehumanizing and disorienting Vietnam experiences.
Treatment (angel leaving dirty tracks) gives us the opportunity to see Allen working in his multimedia mode. A tall, schematic form shaped like a kachina figure stands elevated on a pedestal in the center of a space defined by wood perimeters and bright lights, transforming the figure into a disembodied, otherworldly presence. As Picasso did in his early sculptural assemblages, Allen has used a totally unexpected element to create the desired figurative illusion. An old typewriter is transformed into the kachina's head. The shape is uncannily apt, and the idea of a head with a track that produces words consecrated by its false appropriation of spiritual authority seems appropriate to Allen's theme of betrayal.
He insists that the audience
confront "the process of complete psychic, emotional, and
physical breakdown that occurs in the relentlessly horrific field
Sneaker, the most recent of the works displayed, continues to explore the issues of betrayal and deception that, in Allen's view, were essential to the Vietnam enterprise. On looking at the wall piece, we realize that the title refers not to footwear, since a pair of dress shoes is featured rather than sneakers, but to the behavior of the character, the "sneaker" or sneak, whose story is recounted in the yellow text on the lead surface.
In Allen's view, when it comes to war, all manner of absurdity and misrepresentation becomes possible.
Since the "Youth in Asia" series, Allen has continued to explore complex social issues. Cross the Razor (1994), a piece he did on the border between San Diego and Tijuana for a bicultural exhibition titled "Insite 94," dealt with the problems of cultural interface and coexistence created by our proximity to Mexico.25 His recent bronze sculptures are more general in their social commentary.
Allen likes to work in the space between art and life.
Jacquelyn Days Serwer
2 Ibid., 76.
3. Critic Erika Sunderburg commented on the title: "It is a war under whose influence we perform a type of self-directed euthenasia, as Allen implied in his title." "Beginning the Mourning," Artweek, 6 February 1988, 3.
4. Craig Adcock, "Image/Music/Text: Terry Allen's 'Youth in Asia' Series," Youth in Asia (Winston-Salem: Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 1992), 8.
5. From 1992 to 1994, the exhibition "Youth in Asia" appeared at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas; the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, California; and the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii.
6. Suzanne Muchnic, "Allen Hones a Regional Aesthetic," Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1983, 1.
7. Jerome Tarshis, "Terry Allen," Artforum (June 1970): 92.
8. Hunter Drohojowska, "But there's more to Allen than Art," Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 1 May 1983.
9. Peter Clothier, "True Grit," Art News (January 1989): 105.
10. Drohojowska, "But there's more to Allen than Art."
11. Clothier, "True Grit," 105.
12. Jonathan Crary, "West Texas Dada," Art in America (September 1983): 134.
13. Muchnic, "Allen Hones a Regional Aesthetic," 1.
14. Hickey, "Vietnam and a Betrayal of Childhood," 76.
15. Craig Adcock, "Terry Allen's 'Youth in Asia' Series," Arts (April 1989): 51.
16. Erika Suderberg, "Beginning the Mourning," 4.
17. Allen, qouted in Hickey, "Vietnam and a Betrayal of Childhood," 76.
18. Adcock, "Terry Allen's 'Youth in Asia' Series," 57.
19. Ibid., 53.
20. Written comment to author, 14 December 1995.
21. Craig Adcock, "New Works in Terry Allen's 'Youth in Asia' Series," Arts (December 1987): 52.
22. Ibid., 47.
23. Ibid., 53.
24. Allen, quoted in Hickey, "Vietnam and a Betrayal of Childhood," 76.
25. Describing this fascinating piece, Allen noted that it "consisted of two vans placed in close proximity, one parked on each side with the border line running between them and people were invited to stand on these platforms and speak, sing, scream . . . whatever they wished . . . at the other side." Written statement to author, 14 December 1995.
26. Benjamin Weissman, "Terry Allen," Artforum (November 1991): 143.
27. Clothier, "True Grit," 107.