San Francisco

Terry Allen

Gallery Paule Anglim

After a lost war, as an imperial poet had it, one should write only comedies. Of the Vietnam “adventure,” however, the multiple dislocations, both public and private, have left next to nothing of what comedy most requires: a consensus about what’s really funny, or even bearable, if the residual facts of defeat are taken into account. So, whenever possible, we don’t much take them into account, or, if we do, our tally is a cumulative void framed by afterthoughts that fail to resolve, never click, but weigh in with an insistence like that of meaning, except that they are dumb throughout. As historical voids go, “Vietnam” signifies only the latest, the most salient—a special case, perhaps, in the wide swath it has cut through the collective soul, as well as in the stunning cheapness of its ironies.

The constructions and drawings in the latest installment of Terry Allen’s “Youth in Asia” series, begun in 1982, seem to acknowledge all of the above. They at least try to probe the dearth of common sense and to dignify and give substance to the ironies. Neither propaganda nor analysis, they cast a somewhat shaky light on (or from within) the imperfect, albeit resolute void.

Allen’s task has a built-in melancholy. Its signal organizational element is lead. A complementary device is chewing gum, which Allen uses in different-colored wads for details. (He also uses bamboo, paint, stuffed animals, playing cards, skulls, and natural wood frames.) With sheets of smooth, malleable, heavy-but-soft-looking, dull-gray metal as their “skin,” the constructions have an overall sullenness, quasi-comic and sepulchral by turns. Seen across a room, they are about as funny as squared-off lead balloons. Up close, the combinations of surface restraint with funny and/or sad details can be spellbinding.

In Ghost Wheel 1968, 1986, a stuffed parrot on a bamboo pole presses his beak to the image of what looks like a distant nebula (Allen says it’s a bottomless lake in New Mexico known as the Blue Hole). Beneath the parrot, painted panels show two jays, blue and red, locked in stages of sexual combat. The rest is sheet lead with stamped-in verses about birds, one of them a poem of yearning written by an internee in Theresienstadt, a German relocation camp. Verbal devices stamped in metal recall dog tags and other panoplies of war. They are ancillary to the imagery, which, conversely, is treated rebus fashion, like words. The words themselves nurse the images along toward specific meanings. The boxlike lead base of Fantasia, 1986, notes the number of Vietnam war casualties from each state (Colorado leading with 5,448). Other pieces have “things to do” poems, elegies, country-and-western-type prayers. A floor construction, Grace, 1985, has quietude; its memorial inscription reads, “for one moment / the anger is gone / but that’s all.”

The largest piece in the series, The Battle of Santa Rosa, 1984, includes vocabulary lists in Vietnamese, Spanish, and English. Reading across three sections, from left to right, you find “tee tee” (dress), “paquento” (small girl), “woman’s dress.” The sections are connected by an outline of hills, and each is adorned by a different kind of hair (dog, cat, human). A black figurine of Buddha tilted on a pool-table-green spread confronts a tiny chewing gum cross. The “battle,” Allen says, “refers to the battle we all go through getting through a day.”

Allen has done his homework on the void at street level. Shoring up these fragments of ambient trauma, he is a kind of topical map maker bringing into focus and managing to connect the dots, dark as they are, that bear witness to what Frank O’Hara called “the enormous bliss of American death.”

Bill Berkson