New York

Terry Allen

Barbara Gladstone Gallery

For nearly 15 years Terry Allen has produced a smorgasbord of artworks: drawings, sculpture, plays, prints, books, videotapes, and music. So this exhibition of quirky constructions came as no surprise. What was new for Allen was the subject matter: the lingering influence of Vietnam. Reportedly inspired by a friend’s tales and postwar experiences—the show was titled “Youth in Asia”—Allen tackled the difficult topic with his usual head-on Texas brio, necessarily laced with generous dollops of deep-seated bitterness. His objects convey the emotional intensity of classic Viet-vet anger, despair, cynicism, and, perhaps inevitably, confusion. Allen grew up in the Vietnam period, but has no first-hand experience of Vietnam; his ability to empathize is strong, but it leads him into some esthetic and moral dead ends. Undeterred by the unresolved (and unresolvable) issues left by the war, and by art’s continuing difficulty in making coherent sense of it, Allen, like a good ’60s head, goes with the flow wherever it takes him. Like Stephen Crane (who never saw battle either), he underlines morals (political, social, individual), but manages to do it without moralizing. The courage implied here, of course, is of a post-Modern order: that of facing a botch and making something out of it that can be lived with.

Like the many books that have grappled with Vietnam and its still-potent effects on a generation, Allen veers between documentary and surrealistic extremes. His lead-sheet-covered constructions are littered with the banal—place names, battle-map markers, catch phrases in English and Vietnamese, a tooth, a Buddha idol. Everything is a fragment, a symbol flung to the outer limits of meaning by the centrifugal force of the American experience in Asia. Paint is splattered dots. Position is skewed, tenuous: Buddha tilts sideways, drug capsules are scattered haphazardly. Landscapes are threatening: skulls and cloud-cut quarter moons hang like Damoclean devices in the skies. Language is reduced to a disassociated behaviorism: “Walk outside/look at the sun/walk inside/take off clothes/get a knife/cut off hair.” A pall of furious nihilism infests every expression. These works are opaque and inchoate, reflecting both Vietnam’s overpowering sensory impact and its resistance to analysis.

The centerpiece object, Youth in Asia, 1983, is more successful. A largish sheet-metal model of a prison watchtower is surrounded by a wire-mesh fence. This central monolith features an inset TV screen showing only a blank, static-emitting electronic snow but playing the ’60s pop music that served as the Greek chorus to the Vietnam era: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, the Beatles. Opposite this tuneful cyclops stands a tiny figure, a Buddha made of chewing gum, arms raised in a pose that suggests frustrated anger, abject surrender,or both. Like a contemporary tar baby with more than a touch of evil, this media monster makes prisoners of all who come in contact with it. Allen’s blunt image draws its power from the still-exploding bombs—psychological, social, political—that continue to wrack the Vietnam-affected sensibility.

John Howell