Entering into Terry Allen’s universe is not unlike the imagined sensation of standing on an egg as it rolls across a hard wood floor, never stopping long enough to crack. The process by which we come to understand and appreciate his work requires a level of commitment on the part of the viewer not unlike balancing on an egg in that there are so many nuances and brilliantly imaginative connections being made all at once, that you feel that if you look away — even for an instant, that egg could shatter beneath your feet and you would be left with nothing but egg on your face.
With over a hundred drawings dating from the 1960s to the present, one understands that Allen is truly an artist who works out his ideas on paper: that is, within the scope of this highly controlled two-dimensional plane, Allen asserts an array of unique and perfectly implausible worlds, each a separate and wondrous universe in and of itself. What is so striking about Allen’s drawings is that while they at times suggest much larger and more comprehensive projects — be they sculptural, musical or textual — the genesis by which these ideas are born on paper is as thrilling as the final iteration. Indeed, one sees in certain drawings the spark of larger ideas, while one similarly sees in other drawings an idea as mere spark, where a sketch in its simplicity bears its own radiant fire. In this way, the drawings stand both as testaments to larger projects, but more importantly, they remain as individual jewels to be marveled at in their own right.
The exhibition at LA Louver exists as a kind of road map of sorts, documenting Allen’s weirdly fascinating imagination. Initially, as viewers, we are curious to know what comes next, but if you really spend time with the drawings you come to understand that they are enough, indeed, more than enough. The title of the shows derives from a recent mixed media drawing entitled The Exact Moment (MemWars), which itself is a play on the word “memoir,” which is a retelling of a life story. In the drawing, we see a cowboy whose face is covered. Behind him is his horse, drawn simply and without color. The horse appears to be running or whinnying or both, and the background is divided into segments of red, white and blue respectively, which seems to reference the American flag, or the idea of the American Dream, the dream of the Old West, which for most was not a dream at all but a nightmare, sans gold and beautiful women. The “exact moment” Allen is referring to here could simply be the instant you realize that you will not live forever and that your human legacy is not a legacy at all but a pipedream.
Indeed, there are several drawings in the exhibition that make direct reference to the wild west. For example, the strangely enigmatic The Cowboy’s Dream of Home Turn to Chili-Up-The-Desert, where a cowboy transforms into a giant Sabra cactus, while around him bizarre orifices hang above his head, out of which grow yet more cacti and yes, that’s right, chili and hot dogs. The man’s identity is completely obliterated by his surroundings in much the same way the American Dream has been bastardized by commerce and big business, yet we continue, as did the cowboys of the sacred American West, to don our boots, spurs and hats and ride that dying old dream to the end of the proverbial line of that ever-shifting, ever-dimming horizon.
Still, other works make reference to the mythology of The West while also tying that mythology into today’s cultural symbolism. In Homer’s Notebook, 2-10, we see a man’s face, half obscured by images of Homer Simpson, alternately laughing and grimacing. Around the edges of the paper Allen has written the phrase, “This is the path of the sun’s journey by night,” which is drawn from Homer’s The Iliad, though the phrase aptly contemporary, as though it had been lifted from a Eugene O’Neill play. Either way, the words, while referencing antiquity, also bring to mind images of the wild west with a lone cowboy out on the plain, only now that cowboy must share his hard-won legacy with Homer Simpson. Allen is adept at making sly and sardonic social commentaries within the scope of a single drawing. His images conjure both a longing for a time long since gone, a time steeped in mythic antiquity in conjunction with our now fractured human history where the likes of Homer Simpson speak to our highest ideals.
Allen understands better than most that we cling to our stories as they are both cultural referents and personal markers. Finally, stories are the ways in which we explain ourselves to ourselves, even if those explanations have begun to darken at the edges.
Eve Wood is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Wood’s poetry and art criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals including Artillery, Whitehot, Art & Cake, The New Republic, The Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Flash Art, Angelino Magazine, New York Arts, The Atlantic Monthly, Artnet.com, Artillery, Tema Celeste, Art Papers, ArtUS, Art Review, and LatinArt.com. She is the author of five books of poetry. Also an artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter and Western Project and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York.