People who aren’t Terry Allen would say he’s an installation artist, or a musician, or a sculptor, or a painter. Or maybe they’d say that he does all of that and . . . pretty much whatever he wants. Allen, though, prefers to think of himself as a storyteller. Hang the medium. Hang the labels.
“I always wanted to tell stories, one way or another—through pictures or objects or music,” says Allen, 69, in the Santa Fe studio he had built just across the street from the home he shares with his wife and frequent collaborator, the equally classification-defying writer-actress-artist Jo Harvey Allen. “I’ve never made any distinction. And I’ve never liked labels. People like labels so they don’t have to think.”
If anything, Allen hopes to get people to thinking. To making up their own minds about what a song means, what a painting’s all about, what that show had to do with their lives and their world. And he’s ever busy, ever on the move. In January he released his 11th album, his first in over a decade. The Bottom of the World is the typical Allen mélange of country, blues, rock—Americana. Allen wrote all the songs and played keyboards, and fellow Texas troubadours Guy Clark and Joe Ely joined in, as they have on many of his recordings. Allen plans to play some gigs throughout Texas, and maybe one in Santa Fe. His old pal Jack Lemon, of Santa Fe’s Landfall Press, will be issuing an accompanying Allen print for each song on Bottom, in the tradition of what they did for Allen’s 1975 debut album, Juarez, when they put out an edition of 50 prints, each the size of an LP.
Allen’s also been busy on a show, tentatively titled Futurism in Reverse, that currently covers the walls of his studio. It was inspired in part by a trip he and Harvey took to Rome last summer for their 50th wedding anniversary. (The two have known each other since they first met as 11-year-olds at a Rainbow Girls dance in Lubbock, Texas.) Allen also took inspiration from a friend there who’s the director of the Prada Museum and an authority on Futurism, an early-1900s movement that was an Italian precursor of Dadaism and Surrealism. Allen’s Futurism naturally incorporates drawing, painting, sculpture, and writing—and very possibly, at some point, music (and Harvey). The show is still in its nascent stages; Allen might have it in a gallery in the next year or so.
Musically, Allen’s keyboards wouldn’t sound out of place in a New Orleans barroom; he has as distinctively Texan voice, and a wry songwriting style that’s akin to Randy Newman’s or Butch Hancock’s, the latter a fellow member in good standing of the Lubbock Mafia. He strikes a dark, topical note on the new song “Emergency Human Blood Courier”: “Emergency human blood courier headed south to Mexico/ Where there’s been a whole lotta bleedin’/ And there’s gonna be a whole lot more.”
Artistically, Allen’s two-dimensional pieces mix the absurdist sad-sack humor of neo-expressionist Philip Guston with the scratchy, near-schizophrenic illustrative distortedness of painter Francis Bacon; his installations and bigger works recall the labor-intensive creations of Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Most of his pieces combine painting and drawing (of dark, often crudely rendered figures) with plenty of text and objects (shoes, ravens, wolves wrapped in neon tubing), and sometimes videos or televisions. In person, Allen has the Norwegian boniness of a Garrison Keillor and the easy, devil-may-care grin of writer Richard Brautigan. Words like think come out thank, and his affable demeanor belies his long-held ideation of himself as The Outsider. It’s maybe the one label he’s embraced—if grudgingly.
He was born in 1943, in Wichita, Kansas, the only child of a 60-year-old dad and a 40-year-old mother. His father had played professional baseball for the St. Louis Browns, and in Texas promoted wrestling matches and music shows. His mom played piano professionally; he remembers the road trips to Santa Fe for weekend gigs at La Fonda Hotel. Later, she taught him how to play.
Without much in the flat, endless landscape around Lubbock to visually inspire him, Allen took artistic solace in comic books, in the tattoos sported by his dad’s buddies, and from Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. The Monterey High principal briefly expelled him for drawing dirty pictures in other kids’ notebooks for a quarter a pop.
“I scapegoated where I grew up as an excuse to propel myself out of there,” Allen says now. In time, he came to see it as the source for all his creative ideas and imagery. When he was a kid, though, “There was nothing visual, but there was music and stories and all these contradictions. And I’ve carried all that with me.”
Allen’s first stop was Los Angeles’s Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), where visiting artists included Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and where he and some pals quickly formed the Black Wall Blues Quintet and staged productions at a nearby theater. Eventually, he and Harvey landed in Berkeley, then Fresno, where they raised their sons, Bukka (now a musician) and Bale (an artist), while Allen taught art at Fresno State and Harvey distinguished herself as one of the country’s first female country-music radio DJs.
Once the boys were out of the house, the couple intended to move back to Texas, but stopped in Santa Fe to visit a realtor friend. At El Farol on their one night in town, they got to talking to a man they didn’t know about a wonderful place their realtor friend had just shown them. “Here,” the man told them, plunking down a set of keys; “you should see it at night.” The man just happened to be the owner. So they revisited the house that night, and bought the place straight away. Twenty-six years later, they’re still there.
“I like that in 30 to 45 minutes you can be away all this city stuff, says Allen. “I love being in this space, and the feeling that when you’re jammed—getting out on the road and just hauling ”
That need to get out, get away, to escape, is in Allen’s music in his art, in his very being. Making art for me is a necessity,” he says. “It’s really not a choice. As far a explaining what I do, I don t. What you try to do is just make something that allows people to respond to it as honestly as they can.” ✜
This item appeared originally in the March 2013 issue of New Mexico Magazine.