New Blanton Museum of Art exhibit showcases the talents of artist Terry Allen
Terry Allen’s creative process is a mystery, even to him. In fact, he never knows where inspiration will take him. Although he created works in many disciplines, Allen was first known as one of the greatest narrative songwriters in country music, starting with the cult concept album Outlaw from 1975. Juárez. Although he continues to write and release complex country albums, the most recent being that of 2020 Just like Moby Dick—Allen’s work as a visual artist is at least equal to that of his legendary musical career.
But the former Guggenheim Fellow and several NEA Fellows with pieces in collections across the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, create art without too much regard for resulting media. He does not find inspiration and thinks to himself, it is a song, Where, it is certainly only a painting. Hell, sometimes it’s both. This is the case in many of his pieces in MemWars, an art exhibit that opened at the Blanton Museum of Art on December 18, which deals, as Allen puts it, “this battlefield of memory, I guess.”
“Wolfman of del Rio (MemWars),” for example, a mixed media work on paper created between 2018-19, shares a title with the fourth track from Allen’s 1979 double album. Lubbock (on everything). In the painting, images of a man and a wolf merge, just like the past with the present, and most importantly, Allen’s musical life becomes indistinguishable from his visual art. Basically, that’s how he creates.
“They’ve always been a thing to me. Playing music or creating visual pieces, whatever your sense of curiosity or where it takes you, I’m ready for it, ”Allen says. “This thing of trying to categorize things… I really don’t care about that.”
“Wolfman” joins about 21 other drawings, “densely hung,” at the request of Allen of Blanton’s deputy director of curatorial affairs, Carter E. Foster, on one side of a long black curtain in the contemporary gallery at the museum floor. Opposite is a multi-screen video installation, with Allen on one side and his wife, artist and writer Jo Harvey Allen on the other. They alternately tell stories about the songs’ possible origins, after which the two faces disappear and Allen appears on a third screen, performing with his back to the audience as he and his piano roar down a long, flat highway for over an hour. . Video isn’t necessarily connected to other visual pieces, Allen says, but similar themes emerge when the exhibit is viewed holistically.
“It’s always a mystery where a song comes from, even at the most obvious, it’s always a mystery that it becomes a song to me,” Allen says. “This song kind of deals with that idea.”
Allen met Foster through a mutual friend, museum director Kippy Stroud, who hosted an annual residency in Maine for artists, writers and curators each year. About 10 years ago the two were in Maine and Foster saw Allen’s works during a residency presentation. Foster says he “seemed crazy not to” organize a contemporary art exhibition for Terry Allen at the Blanton when another colleague suggested it. Prior to that, however, in 2015, Stroud passed away suddenly during one of the residences. In thanks to Stroud who brought Allen and Foster together, MemWars includes a song called “Song For Kippy”.
“She had an everlasting influence on everyone she came in contact with, and I’m not sure if she really knew the impact she was having on people,” Allen said. “But then, for me, that was a real anchor in this show.”
Much of the exhibition touches on people like Stroud, whose experiences left a deep mark on Allen. One of them talks about his cousin’s failed attempt to perform a second act as a professional archer following a dishonorable discharge during his fourth tour of Vietnam. “The war basically killed him, but it took about 40 years to do it,” Allen says.
Another, “Roadrunner”, tells of a high school friend who was killed in early Vietnam. A high school track and field champion, he had roadrunners tattooed on his calves and when he died in action he was identified by these markings. Allen’s astute listeners might recognize the name “Blue Asian Reds (for Roadrunner),” a 1979 song written from the perspective of his friend’s grieving girlfriend.
“He was the first person to make war a reality for me,” Allen says. “I was in art school in California and got a call saying it blew up in Vietnam. And it was just inconceivable to me if this human that I knew and who was a friend of mine was there. There are songs in the series that address that.
Allen says that while these plays deal with the battlefield of his memory – and often real settings of war – his work was not born out of a cathartic triumph over emotion.
“It’s more of a cold-blooded thing to do something,” he said. “You just do that thing and then you step back and maybe try to come to terms with it and figure out what it is. But it’s really about the thing. It’s not about you; it’s about you; it’s about what you do.
MemWars runs until July 10, 2022, at the Blanton Museum of Art.
CREDITS: © Terry Allen, Courtesy of LA. Louver, Venice, California