Until recently, I found the prospect of writing about Terry Allen’s work intimidating. He is, after all, the painter/ performer/sculptor/outlaw country singer who famously said “Talking about art is like trying to French kiss over the telephone.” When I first heard this statement at some point back in the last century, I was struck by its obvious arrogance, but I also admired its truth. Why do we feel obligated to reduce our experience of art, or anything for that matter, to words? Isn’t the relationship between the viewer and the thing itself enough?
These days, though, Allen’s maxim seems quaint, what with the curious habit of middle-aged men sexting younger women. No doubt the world has gotten a good deal more comfortable with mediated experience than Allen might have imagined when he first uttered his clever quip. More importantly, though, Allen has spent the last several years making art about a writer. So, if talking about art is like trying to French kiss over the telephone, what is making art about French writing like?
Well, if the artist is Allen and the writer is Antonin Artaud, the answer, fittingly, is poetry. Upon entering the gallery, I was drawn immediately to Allen’s largest, if not longest, visual poem in the exhibition, an elegantly rickety installation from 2010 called Ghost Ship. Like an apparition rising out the fog, the hull of Allen’s vessel is a rusty cot, a stand-in for the bed Artaud was chained to for 17 days in 1937 while being transported, in a straightjacket, aboard the good ship Washington, from Ireland to France, where he was placed in an insane asylum called Rodez. The bed frame floats above a sea of opened books, below which lie paper sails, secured to arched sticks by lengths of baling wire. On the sails are flickering images of Artaud, the actor, in various black-and-white films. On the books is the face of Allen’s wife, the performer Jo Harvey Allen delivering a monologue about Artaud called Daughter of the Heart, her voice drifting in from a nearby gallery so that her words and lips are synced, but not quite intelligible.
Along the walls are numerous works on paper from The Momo Chronicles, whose tortuously taxonomic titles seem the work of a fastidious librarian. Shake off the pretension because the pictures themselves are quite wonderful, crawling as they are with stuffed rats, drawings of birds, and sketches of body parts—a nose, an eye, a forehead. At times I found myself twisting my neck to get a good look at these simultaneously disturbing and handsome images, which are positioned within their frames as if there was no gravity, no up or down. Maybe that’s how things looked to poor Artaud, who Allen follows to Mexico in 1936 (where he ingested peyote with the Tarahumara Indians), to Ireland in 1937 (where he attempted return a holy relic believed to have once belonged to Jesus Christ) and then to France where, after the above-mentioned voyage, he died of cancer in 1948.
We know of this chronology because Allen describes it in the press-type words that litter his surfaces. “The pain is enough to make you smile,” Allen writes on one piece that features a drawing of a seashell, an anatomical heart, an ear and a quartet of partial portraits of his subject. Of beautiful Vera Cruz, Allen imagines that for Artaud, it “felt like he was being beaten to death with a postcard.” By the time he ended up in Rodez, surrounded in Allen’s drawings by birds that now seem to mock his confinement, “He stared at himself in the mirror and would scream for hours.”
In the end, Allen’s Artaud is deified for being what Allen calls a “true artist,” as innocent as a child, deviant as a criminal, and crazy as a loon. Artaud could cope in the real world only as long as the heroin held out. After that, he “coped” by being locked up. Ironically, given the high quality of his output during his last years, going cold turkey, followed by some good-old-fashioned tough love, may have been what the tortured poet and playwright really needed. How’s that for a quaint concept?
Terry Allen – Ghost Ship Rodez: Works from “The Momo Chronicles" @ Gallery Paule Anglim, through October 1, 2011.
About the Author:
Ben Marks is the senior editor of CollectorsWeekly.com and a contributor to KQED.org.