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Border Patrol

Terry Allen puts viewers in a Texas state of mind.


Kansas Citians know Terry Allen's work. His controversial "Modern Communication," a bronze sculpture of a man in a business suit with a tie wrapped around his eyes and a shoe stuck in his mouth, stands outside the Kansas City Police Department communications building at 11th Street and Locust. That piece was installed through a city program that devotes 1 percent of all public-building expenses to art, and some taxpayers weren't especially happy about it. But Allen is more than a sculptor who knows how to create traditional-looking bronzes that make fun of bureaucrats.

Terry Allen: Voices & Scrawl at the Belger Arts Center introduces audiences to Allen's print and installation work. The show is divided into two sections: Voices in the Wilderness consists of paintings, video, sculpture, music and other sounds; Scrawl displays 47 prints Allen created between 1970 and 2003 (all but one of the prints he's ever done) as well as his brand monoprints and branding irons, shown here for the first time. (In a further display of Allen's varied talents, his band performed Texas-style folk music on the first floor of the Belger warehouse the night before the exhibit's opening.)

Allen tells tales through his artwork -- fictional stories, he claims, though he adds that "they lie their way to the truth." In fact, the series of events through which Belger Center Director Myra Morgan became acquainted with Allen reads like a short story. Morgan, who operated a gallery in Kansas City for many years, spotted Allen's work in a group show in Texas back in 1973. She became obsessed with hunting him down for a show in her gallery. Not long after that, Morgan's husband suffered a heart attack, so she focused her attention instead on helping him recover. Soon after, though, Jack Lemon, director of Landfall Press in Chicago, showed up on the Morgans' doorstep with a handful of drawings and some musical recordings. Lemon had attended a concert at which the musician had projected slides of drawings illustrating the stories in his songs. Lemon needed financial backing to put out the artist's record and a suite of prints. Morgan immediately recognized Allen's work and agreed to fund the project -- with the stipulation that Allen give her a gallery show. A year later, Allen and his artwork came to Kansas City.

That first record and the accompanying six color lithographs, titled "Jaurez Suite," are installed at the beginning of Scrawl. They fit inside a leather box branded with a pachuco cross, a common tattoo among Mexican gangsters. Allen's prints look like set-design sketches, and his songs tell the sad tale of two pairs of lovers: Sailor, on leave from the Navy, meets Alice, a Mexican prostitute. The next day, the two marry and drive from San Diego to Cortez, Colorado, for a makeshift honeymoon. There, they cross paths with Jabo, a Jaurez-born pachuco, and his girlfriend, Chic. The newlyweds end up dead, and Jabo and Chic hightail it toward Mexico.

"Jaurez has been like a weird haunting," Allen tells the Pitch. He began writing the songs in 1965. Since then, he has written a screenplay, a play and a radio show in addition to creating his prints, drawings and installations. "I don't know what the next manifestation is," the artist admits. "Hopefully, there won't be another one. It's just one of those things that dogs you." Allen says the characters are mysteries to him. "Every one of them opens up possibilities in the way they collide with one another. They're not really people in that sense -- they're these presences and climates."

Through them, Allen delves into conceptual, emotional and social issues. His stories embody themes of escapism, identity and the desire to connect with other human beings; they also deal with social issues such as illegal immigration. He's not didactic or preachy, though. "The artist's job is to make things that [the audience] most cares about at a given time," he says. "Good work opens the door to possibilities in the viewer. Whatever they bring is valid."

Allen continues to explore Jaurez in the Voices in the Wilderness installation, created sixteen years after the record and prints. (Curator Mark Spencer dubs it "'Jaurez' without the words.") Those unfamiliar with the story will easily pick up the road-trip references and the eerie, somewhat dreamy atmosphere. Paintings of Southwestern landscapes, colorful sunsets behind dark mountain ranges, hang on the wall. A car speaker and tape decks play the sounds of wind, passing trucks, animals and strains of music. Allen directs the speakers into the paintings and objects, so the noise becomes muffled, as though heard through a car window. On the ground, objects sitting on top of piles of sand -- an abandoned shoe, rocks, an old wooden chair -- are littered among the crisscrossing audio wires.

One of the items lying on the floor is a rubber inner tube with a wooden board on top of it -- what Allen calls a "perfect ship." Near the tube sits a metal cage shaped like a human head; inside, a TV plays video of the "perfect ship" in action. A man in waterproof pants pulls another man in a cowboy hat and jeans across the river from Jaurez toward El Paso. Once across, the man on the inner tube runs up the bank and crawls through a hole in a chain-link fence and into America. The piece suggests what might be going on inside Allen's mind, allowing viewers to experience his forty-year haunting.

Allen has always been fascinated with the Mexican border. "The whole romance of growing up [in Texas] and thinking in terms of Mexico as the place of great freedom -- all you had to do was cross a line, and everything you're kept from doing on this side of the line you get to do over there. Which is a double-edged sword, of course."

Allen notes that in his Jaurez story, all of the characters are displaced. "The sailor's never on the water. The pachuco is always trying to get back home. The hooker is trying to get out of her situation. Everyone's in a state of motion. I guess I am, too."

He explores these themes in lighter, more humorous works as well. In "Texas Goes to Europe," a print from 1974, Texas towns replace the real cities on a multicolored map of Europe -- a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps, given that thirty years later, thanks to President Bush, the whole world is subject to the Texas go-getter attitude. And several of Allen's earliest prints deal with his love of music, depicting scenes of instruments, musicians or jukeboxes. His newer prints are associated with his "Dug Out" body of work, telling the story of his father, a professional baseball player, and his mother, a honky-tonk pianist.

A small gallery in the center holds six of Allen's brands on paper: a watch, a computer cursor, double crosses, a skull, an X, and the phrase "All artists try to be God and will burn in hell" arranged in a whirlpool design. These are beautiful, unique works of art. The hot iron cuts through the paper, leaving different burn marks each time. Allen has also marked the walls, ceiling and floor of the gallery with his hot metal creations; the branding irons themselves are displayed as art objects.

With this show, the Crossroads District breathes some fresh air. Many of the nearby galleries are filled with formulaic work that looks pretty but doesn't engage the intellect. (Not that anyone's actually looking at the art on First Fridays.) But Allen's work functions on multiple levels; you can't get it in one glance. Be warned, though: Multiple trips to Voice and Scrawl could leave your thoughts turning to Sailor, Alice, Jabo and Chic long after you leave the Belger Center.

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