Los Angeles

Terry Allen

Over the past five years, Terry Allen’s “Youth in Asia”—an ongoing series of mixed-media tableaux and installations—has provided a poignant and conceptually complex investigation into the legacy of the Vietnam War and its impact on the American psyche. While this might sound like familiar territory, Allen offers a fresh reading of it, juxtaposing the idealized signification of ”home" with dark symbols of alien cultures dismembered by war. Allen’s oeuvre defies easy analysis because it refuses to be either didactic or apologetic. With its dislocated, stream-of-consciousness combination of narrative text, stuffed animals, Navaho and Vietnamese references, and Disney cartoon characters, the work defies ideological closure.

In certain respects, the artist’s violent fragmentation of language echoes Dada and its similarly absurdist reaction to the horrors of World War I. But Allen seems less interested in debunking notions of power, progress, and nostalgia than in presenting these elements at face value, thus inviting the viewer to create his own discourse with the politics of memory. Indeed, Allen’s position is so detached and ambiguous that one is often left wondering exactly what political stance he is taking, beyond a self-evident antiwar liberalism. Paradoxically, this ambivalence is the work’s main strength, enabling Allen to direct his constructions toward the gut rather than the head. The artist’s emotive, somewhat plaintive approach is reinforced by his use of lead (the texts are literally stamped into the surface) and a recurrent triptych format. The works trigger thoughts of altarpieces and sepulchers, memento mori perhaps to a generation that matured under Kennedy only to die physically and/or spiritually with the blanket bombing of Johnson and Nixon.

In Boogie Chillen, 1988, the lyrics of a John Lee Hooker song are juxtaposed with an inverted image of Walt Disney’s Dumbo, an architectural sketch of what appears to be a house or shelter, and a framed Vietnam War medal. The lyrics’ celebration of sexual awakening and adolescent growth—“You gotta let that boy be a man”—are transformed into a lament for the cultural loss of innocence, a rite of passage to near-certain death. Similar motifs recur in the triptych Sanctuary, 1986, in which a lead-framed pastel of an ominous-looking shelter is bordered by inverted renditions of birds and Chinese characters. The birds emanate a particularly cryptic presence, suggesting omens, predators, tainted purity, and circumscribed freedom. The fragments of bamboo surrounding the sanctuary are equally ambiguous; they could refer to instruments of torture, concealed jungle booby traps, or, in a larger context, to shattered ideals.

Just as the indigenous home-as-shelter can be transformed into an imperialist prison-house, art itself, in contradiction to its traditional role as social salve, can also be indicted as an instrument of self-righteous power. Stylistic references to neoclassicist and pointillist painting allude obliquely to French colonialism in Southeast Asia, while in Aparté (Rat Talk at the Sonic), 1988, Mickey Mouse is depicted as a madly vindictive artist zapping a cartoonish rice-hat-wearing turtle with his paintbrush. Allen implicates the national perception of the Vietnam War in a broader myth, as part of the same blinkered lie of cultural normalcy that pervades American life. In this respect, “Youth in Asia” could be seen as a suggested euthanasia for smugly traditional Western mores.

Colin Gardner

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