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Terry Allen:Theater of Art

Terry in his studio, summer 2011.

Master of multimedia, he invites all our senses to the party


Terry Allen’s studio with, from left, Bad Birds in the Blood Tree and Snap, Voidville, both mixed-media gouache paintings, both from 2004.

On his website, Terry Allen calls himself an artist/songwriter, but the truth is much more complex than that. As he puts it in his soft West Texas drawl, we are beings of at least five senses: “You don’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m just gonna hear today.’”

Allen’s art engages not only all of our senses, but our intelligence too. He is a writer, musician, draftsman, sculptor, and videographer, and at his foundation he is a profoundly conceptual artist. He doesn’t make visual art that is set to his music, for example, so much as he serves as a multi-talented (and many-tentacled) stage director.

A performance of his most recent work, SongStories (From the Bottom to the Top to the Bottom of the World, etc.), was conducted this summer in an eight-story tower at the Oliver Ranch, 100 acres of sculpture in the heart of Sonoma County in Northern California. The piece serves as a model that typifies work by Allen—if indeed there is anything typical about him. The location for SongStories, Ann Hamilton’s The Tower, is a site-specific acoustic environment based on the discovery in Europe of an ancient cattle well with one set of stairs for the bovines to go down and drink, and another for them to ascend into their pastureland. Hamilton’s concrete structure is open at the top, while a pool of water reflects the sky at the bottom. Audience and performers occupy some 125 seats up and down the double-helix staircases.

Allen composed the music, while the dramatic piece was written with his wife, actress Jo Harvey Allen (probably best known for playing the sex therapist in the 1991 hit Fried Green Tomatoes). She recounted stories from the protagonist’s life while Allen and his ensemble of musicians played at various levels of the tower. (The sound was managed—expertly—by one of Lady Gaga’s technicians.) The performance was followed by a concert on a regular stage outside the tower. Allen recalls that it was odd to make the transformation from hearing the music vertically to the more horizontal range diffused from onstage.

Usually, “it’s a living hell when we collaborate,” Allen says of working with his wife. “But this was so smooth; really it was an editing process,” where each wrote separately and then came together to join the parts. The smoothness may be the result of the couple having known one another since they were 11; they grew up together in Lubbock, Texas, and celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary this year—though neither looks old enough.

Probably the tie that binds them most, aside from their two sons Bukka and Bale, is that they “know the same stories.” Each was born with that spellbinding storyteller gene; their love for the craft and unique take on how to narrate a vision is what keeps them vibrant as collaborators, spouses, and artists with their own careers in what Allen calls “a funny balancing act.” (He claims that having a wife who is an actress is a bonus—she works for him cheap.) Music and performance are natural mediums for Allen. His mother was a musician; his father, a retired baseball player for the St. Louis Browns, took over an empty Foursquare Baptist church where he held dances with live bands as well as popular wrestling and boxing matches. This was in the late 1940s and ’50s, the era of segregation. On Friday nights black musicians played, so Allen grew up with the likes of T-Bone Walker, countered by Saturday nights’ all-white stars, including Hank Williams.

He hated high school, where he got into trouble for drawing and writing songs— “the two things I wound up doing” as an adult. A teacher told him about Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts, or Cal Arts) in Los Angeles, and within a half an hour of marrying Jo Harvey, the two had crossed the Texas state line, headed west. In L.A. they hosted Rawhide and Roses on one of the country’s first independent FM radio stations, KPPC out of Pasadena.

“Jo Harvey told lies about everything she could think of,” Allen says of the show, which ran on Sunday mornings, followed by a blues show. Everyone stuck around during an hour break for the news before Firesign Theater, with a motley crew from the morning shows, offered its unique brand of live radio hijinks for the rest of the afternoon. It was a wild and woolly time of “anything goes” in the ’60s, and the Allens became known as part of a rich consortium of creativity. Nothing could hold them back after that kind of notoriety, and Allen’s art in all its forms reflects his original, independent thinking.

Ever since he landed upon an anthology of writing and drawings by the French playwright, poet, actor, and theater director Antonin Artaud at City Lights Books in San Francisco decades ago, and basically begged it from Lawrence Ferlinghetti— “Just take the damned thing,” Ferlinghetti growled at the young Allen—Artaud has been Allen’s great obsession. In his essay “Theater of Memory” (Dugout, 2005), David Byrne of the Talking Heads notes that “Allen spews out one of these epic works every decade or so . . . .”

For the last several years, his epic piece has taken shape as the installation work The Ghost Ship Rodez, about Artaud’s 1937 sea journey from Dublin to a mental instititution in Rodez, France. An opium addict, Artaud was in withdrawal and hallucinating, and was straitjacketed and chained to his cot below decks for the 17-day journey. Ghost Ship is a phenomenal work of art, consisting of videoed performances by Jo Harvey, plus installation, drawing, painting, music, and theater—particularly theater as Allen realizes it through Artaud’s writing. Most important, Ghost Ship has everything that makes for a great story: appallingly sinister humor, tragic lost beauty, an unrelenting search for redemption, the viciousness of corporeality, and more than a trace of tenderness.

From the Fall 2011/Winter 2012 issue | Republished in Trend 2024

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