Los Angeles

Terry Allen

As bronze sculptures go, a male bust being whacked in the back of the head with a baseball bat is pretty appealing. This image becomes all the more pleasurable in the context of a gallery, where violence is usually kept safely at arm’s length—denounced as political atrocity, or repressed through earnest yammerings about gender and politics. Consider all the figures who have achieved the status of bronze or plaster bustdom and try and restrain yourself from taking a baseball bat to the back of at least one esteemed cortex. The striking of a skull also speaks of the need for art that takes viewers metaphorically outside their everyday heads, not via textbook didacticism but with unexpected imagery and language. The male figure in Terry Allen’s National Pastime I, 1991, dressed in a suit and tie, is less disturbed than one might expect by the impact of the bat. Though his flying tie is frozen in bronze, while his stern senatorial face—neatly cut from the head—topples forward like a mask, his head, neck, and shoulders remain classically rigid. The expression on his face is one of disconnected reverie, as though he were trying to remember the last time his face fell off. National Pastime II, 1991, presents the senator again—his face blown back against his head, and tie whipped over his left shoulder—as if in a windstorm. Cinderella Block, 1991, consists of a female leg in a high-heel shoe with a cinder block attached to the shin and toe. Shake, 1991, features a set of teeth protruding from the wall; below it, a hand with 11 fingers.

Portrait, 1991, is a 37-inch-square lead swastika, with a yellow happy face painted on the glass frame. Positions in the Desert, 1990, a volatile six-part photo/lithograph, features large images of dead animals found on the highway and the libretto of an optimistically morbid road opera scrawled in nervous handwriting. The central characters—Jabo and Chic— love and hate each other, rob, shoot guns, slice throats, carry on about their tattoos, and fuck every day in their car. This exhibition is a comforting house of horrors.

Acknowledging fear and facing scum can induce giggling. Allen’s work is resolutely of the world; it is based on material from a real-life American voyage. It’s a great example of how the brain plays when it’s isolated: it whispers dangerous stories and tells bad jokes. Allen’s realistic world is interior and mean. His work doesn’t look over its shoulder and splash around in the dominant signs of conceptualism; it’s bloody, ghostly, disembodied, paradoxical, and as impure as sludge. Allen’s objects and images set off but never explain the freakishness that terrorizes the soul. It’s too spontaneous for obvious answers, but graceful enough to pose brilliant questions.

Benjamin Weissman