New York

Terry Allen

Michael Walls Gallery

California artist Terry Allen’s latest collages form the third and final chapter of his narrative series, Juarez Device. These 13 works treat the journey of two couples, Jabo and Chic Blonde, Alice and the Sailor, through the southwestern United States and Mexican border towns. It’s never clear where they go or just what happens, but Allen throws out clues to infer a tale of sex, murder, and interstate flight. This work is cluttered and complex compared to the photographic story artists. But his aims are different. He’s after the Surrealist chimera of an amalgamated literary and pictorial art, and Juarez Device is an attempt at a novel on the wall.

Okay. Allen uses snapshots, decals, postcards, painted landscapes, typed and transfer-type words and phrases to reconstruct the geography and the cultural milieu through which his characters move. The drawing in the works is nutty, rigid, gauche and alien, like pre-Columbian hieroglyphs or tattoo designs. The two-dimensional referents for his composition might be vacation scrapbooks, photo-album pages, pictographic maps for tourists, or the messy displays of souvenir stands and novelty shops. The story Allen presumes to tell is a clear pretext for collating what he’s picked up during his own travels.

From Route to Ruin sets up the metaphorical map-making with two black-and-white photos of a woman’s bent leg (although she wears male underwear) pinned and crayoned to show the journey. Los Angeles is at her toe; San Diego and Tijuana at her heel; Cortez, New Mexico, and the Four Corners area at her knee; and Juarez below the Mexican border is marked on her inner thigh. In both Love Trap and Auto Psy, the figure of the state of Colorado emerges from a section of painted map as a gray-painted relief (improvident shades of Johns!). This motif, like the typed and torn-out letters of the alphabet in Auto Psy, is neatly presented here and disarranged in later works in the series.

In Shoot-Out at Shiprock, disarrangement is consonant with travel, encampment, and encounter on the desert. The work contains tumbling squares of grayrelief, each labeled with a letter of the name Colorado. More of what Marinetti in 1912 called parole in libertà (remember we got the alphabet in Auto Psy) are sprinkled on the work and the wall at lower right—a lot of little BANG’s. An unlikely incident underwrites some of Allen’s pictorial motifs. He transfer-types: “. . . while Jabo is shooting at the police. . . . Chic snaps off photos of frightened desert life,” yet there are no animals, only animals’ names graffitied on a bunch of rocks.

One of the major pretexts for pictorial disarrangement in these works is fluttering, the way things flutter over desert landscapes. Another is rocks caught in strata underground, and still another is things floating on the water. In Dis-Chorded, Jabo and Chic, having murdered Alice and the Sailor at a trailer camp, toss the dead couple’s belongings out of the getaway car. The tossing of Alice’s diary is depicted in a separate and smaller panel. ’Nearly all of these pages in both panels of Dis-Chorded are legible, which sets up a secondary narrative of past episodes from the sordid lives of the murdered couple. Fluttering along with these pages are the typed alphabet letters so neatly laid out in Auto Psy.

In The End, Allen presents a snapshot and an anecdote:

. . . boy in the water beneath the BRIDGE.

He was holding a crude home-made device made from a piece of cardboard rolled into a cone and wired to the end of a broom handle. The boy yelled up at the tourists on the BRIDGE, SOLICITING COINS OR ANY OTHER ITEMS THEY’D THROW. Magically, his wand never mythed . . . just selected.

Alongside this clear analogue of his art-making, Allen depicts a single notebook page within a gray field. The laconic message written upon ’it anticipates criticism of Juarez Device: “Myth . . . MY ASS.”

A lot of truckers call this Mexican border town “Whore-ez,” and Allen’s plot about a murdered prostitute and her sailor lover is like a rank truckdriver’s ballad. In fact, Allen taped several honkie songs at the opening of the show. The battered piano, the tape of songs relating to the works, and a few empty beer bottles remained behind as a part of the installation.

Writing is a lot about finding incidents and fabricating literary conceits, and collage is about finding artifacts and using pictorial devices to put them together. I don’t mind if individual works in Juarez Device come unglued. It is, after all, a novel, and chapters in a novel are parts of the whole. Just as a writer might record an incident in dialect, Allen quotes the vernacular—tattoos, decal displays in car windows, etc.—in his compositional method. Allen’s acculturation of his art is a quiet continuation of the assumption of popular models kicked off in the ’60s by the Pop artists.