By Jef With One F
By Pete Vonder Haar
By Abby Koenig
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Jef With One F
By Christina Uticone
By Angelica Leicht
By Altamese Osborne
It was a guy thing. Standing amid the loaded iconography -- axes, broken beer bottles, real dogs in a cell-like cage -- that comprise their collaborative effort "Poison Amor," Lubbock-raised artists Terry Allen and James Drake spoke to an opening-night crowd about "doin' pieces and drinkin' beer." Cute.
But what bothered me was just a little too much coziness in presumptions of mutual approval between artists and audience. Significantly, "Poison Amor" not only refers to issues of the Texas/Mexican border, but derives its title from the artists' visits to the Juarez dump, where people eke out a living by scavenging trash. Impressed with their ingenuity, Allen and Drake aimed to emulate them in their art, creating with whatever materials they had at hand.
Appropriately, Allen and Drake provided just the right amount of local color in their work, supported by low-key personal charm and honest-to-God Texas twang. But the folksy quality is like a sugar coating. Ideally, one is beguiled, quickly drawn to the work and then perhaps surprised to find oneself confronting the fundamental dilemmas of human existence. The "good old boy" spiel serves as a convenient smokescreen. Although a fast smile and down-home charm are endemic to a West Texas upbringing, the distinction between the private and public persona, between truth and fiction, is often vague, and there is usually a more complex intention.
Whereas both artists use the familiar material as a point of departure, it is a mistake to assume that everything in their works is autobiographical. "You deal as a base with the things you know about," says Allen. As such, his work has taken a variety of forms -- books, theatrical performances, environments and songs. Moreover, to trace Drake's work is to observe how forms create other forms, to see how he uses and reuses various conventions. Both artists leave us with open-ended scenarios, supplying a myriad of emotionally charged messages, from which any single conclusion is not available.
Movement through time is a major factor. Because Allen and Drake aren't interested in anything that can be categorized or held onto, their works seem to be continuously poised on the edges of possibility. Occurrences take place in our imaginations, in the lives and activities of those we don't know and have never met; they exist in words, sounds, pictures, places and movements all at once.
In "Poison Amor," the contradictions of love and passion, lyricism and madness, betrayal and murder coexist. Like the border, "Poison Amor" is a place of transition. It's where all things seem capable of transmogrification; where we are at once participants and voyeurs, recognizing our own alignment with others across barriers and borders. Traditional concepts of regionalism and figuration are turned on end and the installation becomes a kind of metaphoric visual opera. Lit like stage sets in the darkened galleries, the pieces seem abandoned outposts, made alive only by the presence of electrical energy, sound and light: the flicker of TV screens, the green and red floodlights, the screeching of the power saw.
Broken glass, a rifle with fixed bayonet and a stuffed fighting cock are among the physical remnants of some fleeting act, but also the repositories of meaning, in that only the objects remain to suggest what has happened, what is happening, will or might not happen. The majority of symbols, however, have an oddly ex-aggerated and contradictory character. Hearts and flowers, knives, snakes, dogs, monkeys and pools of blood are also images to tattoo onto skin. They appear, on the one hand, to be larger-than-life images flush with multiple meanings and, on the other hand, to be dismally bloated forms drained of all significance by overexposure.
For the most part, the symbols are weakly commonplace. Consider the "yard" of broken glass, with shards and slivers seductively glowing under the red, green, blue and amber lights that surround the innocuous "hero" on a pedestal. Another piece has an ax driven into a wooden food trough balanced between two chairs (Love Seat -- Tenochtitlan Salon). A lone figure crouches inside a box-like hut, watching an electric storm on a television (Frontera). A drawing and woven rug superimpose images of a screaming blue monkey and the word "Muerte." The space literally comes alive with the presence of two dogs inside the large cage that makes up the show's focal point (Dream Dog). They eat, sleep, bark and whine, effecting change in the space and underscoring the struggle between flight and containment. A cast human figure dangles like bait from one ankle by a rope where the dogs are kenneled.
Border culture includes a deep fear, the fear of being seen, caught, trapped. To say that the borderlands are already a third country between the other two is to ignore the pain and very real terror for countless numbers of people. Simply put, there is no frontier, no place to go to escape the problems or ignore the potential. Survival depends on the ability to live in the interstices and an awareness that those who can protect can also violate. This sort of Latino Gothic usually hearkens to images of tormented self-consciousness and inescapable doom as well as moral corruption. Yet Allen and Drake aren't providing any revelations about border culture. Their pieces seem like raw armatures, the bare bones of surface details. None of it is provocative in the way of the artists' individual works.