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Pushing the Artistic Borders

Mexico, America and La Frontera find expression in "Poison Amor"

In their "Poison Amor" collaboration now showing at Blaffer Gallery, Lubbock-raised Terry Allen and James Drake use junkyard refuse to make assemblages strongly rooted in the contemporary life of "La Frontera," the northern border region of Mexico. Drake, based in El Paso, is known for his huge drawings with steel components and epic bronze sculptures of incisive social commentary; Allen, who currently lives in Santa Fe, is a multimedia artist known for his satiric and humorous constructions, paintings and installations, as well as for his songs and performances.

For "Poison Amor," Allen and Drake used drawings, rugs, a power saw, a stuffed rooster, TVs and other objects to create narrative environments that deal with the Texas/Mexico border. The artists took some time recently to discuss the process of their collaboration, their deep attachment to West Texas and their ongoing fascination with border culture.

SK: Why did it seem the right time to do a collaboration?
TA: Jeffrey Moore, the director of Blue Star Art Space in San Antonio, had the idea of doing something with the two of us, and James had recently bought a house across the street from me in Santa Fe. So it really came about logistically from that point of view. James knows some people down in Oaxaca who make rugs. So our initial idea was, let's make some rugs and let's do some drawings. The first day we pinned up a blank sheet of paper on the wall. We said, okay, we're going to have to do a drawing to get one of these rugs made. We stood there and then pinned up another piece of paper and said, okay, you work on this one, IÕll work on that one, and then weÕll change. We didn't have a procedure, but it was real tense. Both of us just concentrated on the piece, not on identity. James brought up a bunch of his stuff and I had my stuff and we just kind of went at it. Somebody said that it was like suspending our egos. But it was absolutely the opposite. It was a matter of trust.

JD: It was the first time I had ever done anything like this. It may sound silly, but sometimes I believe ideas fly through the air, you grab them, and they happen. But we didn't set out to do certain things. We thought we'd just get together, drink some beers, have a good time and if it turned out we made something -- fine. If it didn't, well thatÕs fine, too. No preconceived notions.

TA: The collaboration really came about after James and I made several trips to the dump in Juarez. It was that funny collision in yourself of being stunned at the poverty and the way people live, but equally stunned at the ingenuity they have in how they built their houses, how they live their lives. The title of the show, "Poison Amor," comes from that Ñ the idea of using whatever is at hand, including each other's ideas. But there's no real border when it comes to business, information or money. It's just flesh. That's the border.

SK: A good deal of your works address political issues. It seems to me that a lot of political art produced during the '80s has been diffused of its power. How do you maintain effectiveness?

TA: You can't avoid the fact that if you deal with any issues about people, it's going to be political. But usually when people hear that word they assume there's a position. But picking a side has never interested me. To say you're a Democrat isn't going to solve all your problems. To say you're a Republican, a terrorist or an artist isn't going to put you on political holy ground. I think political correctness is the most advanced form we've seen in this country of real heavy-duty fascism. We're getting people to the point where they canÕt move Ñ they can't speak, can't eat, can't use their natural humor. Every move you make, somebody is pissed off at you.

SK: Why has Juarez -- really, the whole concept of the border as imaginative site and geographic location -- preoccupied both of you?

TA: It hasn't been an obsession, but it's been something that always comes up in some form or other in my work. There's always been a huge pull to Mexico since the time I was a child -- for the most crass reasons and the most romantic reasons. In West Texas, especially, Mexico was like every movie you saw. If someone committed a crime and wanted to get out of the country -- go to Mexico. If you just wanted to get away from the bullshit -- go to Mexico. One of my first music memories is of the migrant workers who came to Lubbock to pick cotton. TheyÕd always park at the fairground where my dad had an arena for music and wrestling. It was like a giant gypsy camp outside and he'd walk around with me. There'd be people cooking and singing and playing music. It was another image I had of some other place that wasn't where I was, but I was real curious about.

JD: To me, you just make what you are basically. I don't know anything else to do. But I was raised in Lubbock and then we took off to Guatemala when I was four years old. My mother went to Mexico when she was 18. For a woman in West Texas to do something like that was totally unheard of. Later on, we moved to El Paso. So I have both influences Ñ Mexico and then a real conservative flat place like Lubbock. You put those together and see what happens.

SK: So what is it about Lubbock that nurtures so many artists and musicians? Where do the impulses come from?

TA: I think it's kind of what we're talking about. We just did this piece called Chippy and it's about a hooker who roamed the Panhandle during the 1930s oil boom. It's all taken from her actual diaries and there's a spirit of survival in her that's so strong and tough and totally unselfconscious. I think people who settle in that part of the country -- it's so ugly and the weather is so horrible -- have a hard bark just to survive and sustain themselves.

SK: Your works seem to have taken on the task of helping us reorient ourselves. The delicate tools of discrimination have been replaced by the ax and an AK-47. Is this the fallout of an imperial worldview in the 20th century?

JD: Basically, I did a lot of those AK-47s because I was in the Army and shot a lot of them. I know that sounds simplistic, but I was fascinated by what they did, the way they looked. Again, a lot of this has to do with growing up in West Texas and then living on the border where there are shocking realities. I never really thought about it in terms of illusion or power. It was just the way it was. This was the way people lived here as opposed to there.

SK: Are the works, then, really about basic life instruction? Do we live in a world of illusions where we tend to see things a little differently than they really are?

TA: But there's also that element of surprise. A hallmark piece of the show is called "Conversation" and addresses a lot of the things you're talking about. An electric saw hangs in a box balanced between two chairs. The saw comes on every 15 minutes or so for 30 seconds. Well, that's like West Texas in a funny sort of way. It's that endless flat line that your eye and your need are always trying to get beyond. You're living in the center of this circle. Part of that can make you feel like you're the only person in the world, like an egomaniac. And the other part makes you feel like everybody in the world is aiming at you. You're dead center of the target.

SK: In "Poison Amor" you employ steel encasements, platforms, rooms and cages. These seemingly serve as meeting places between the body and the world, between power and control.

JD: I remember as a kid once when I was lost in my room. I would sleepwalk a lot and one night I woke up in my bedroom in Lubbock -- and I was lost. It must have been an hour and I could never find the light, although I could feel the curtains and things in my bedroom. Finally, my dad heard me crying and carrying on and he turned the light on. Then it was all visible. I guess we're all still dealing with those enclosed spaces and trying to get out of those enclosed spaces somehow.

TA: I grew up around the wrestling ring, which is like a big cage where people fight. When they'd move the ring, it would become a dance hall, a stage. But it was always a defined perimeter. When you're outside, there's one kind of behavior and when you're inside there's another. And that's kind of the way we live.

"Poison Amor, " a collaborative installation by Terry Allen and James Drake, will show through October 9 at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, entrance No. 16 off Cullen Boulevard, 743-9530.

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