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.
For the most part, Allen and Drake seem more concerned with the collaborative process than with narrative content. The upshot is two strong personalities attempting to remove themselves out of individual comfort zones. Nevertheless, the ad-lib nature of the collaboration effects a seamless blend. It's well-nigh impossible to tell where Allen leaves off and Drake begins, thereby creating a third presence.
If the Blaffer show veers close to corny melodrama, two individual exhibitions mounted by Drake and Allen in conjunction with their collaboration successfully encode a tangled personalized iconography. They remind us that real boundaries are not just geographic, but are also epochal and psychological.
For his solo exhibition at Texas Gallery, James Drake presents large charcoal drawings -- single images and diptychs -- of ordinary houses, a small-town drugstore, a snakeskin pattern and desert terrain. Handwritten in light pencil across the bottom of the ascetic photorealist works are phrases pulled from conversations, letters and novelettes. Overall, the feeling is road-trip panorama. Like conceptual artists Al Ruppersberg and John Baldessari, who have always concerned themselves with the multiplicity of syntactical and structural possibilities, Drake examines the connection between word and image, the relationship between art and its consequences as information becomes as complex as life itself.
An image of a generic-frame house is paired with the phrase, "She stood over the heater and cried, 'Lord, take me from this earth.'" A diptych titled A Little Girl Ran Down the Hall Screaming juxtaposes an image of El Capitan, the highest peak in Texas, and the empty shell of a suburban colonial "mansion."
Just as words arise from images in narrative, so do images arise directly from text. Visual symbols that take on direct verbal/written connotations stretch the viewer between image, text and the total work. Thus, Drake creates images with a language of movement. In many respects, they are stories told by and about externals, posing the larger question as to what truly exists inside these implied characters and physical structures.
A series of smaller works pair grainy photos of generic ranch-style houses or hillside views of Juarez's scraped-together shacks with pieces of snakeskin. Exterior skins, then, are transparent to a secondary layer of surfaces contained within our environments, ourselves. A snake sheds its skin much like we change houses or personnas. We molt our feelings. If anything, the slices of skin represent the snake that crawls through the heart.
Curiously, the snakeskin patterns also resemble frequencies of an electrocardiogram. But Drake metaphorically cuts out the heart, a V-8 engine covered in python skin, which he hangs like a captured animal from a huge welder's A-frame. Unsettling, if humorously erotic, its plugs and hoses become aortas and valves that spill onto the floor. While covering the engine in snakeskin evokes images of border products, where snakeskin seems to be recycled into boots, vests or hats and nothing goes to waste, the metaphor also includes the car as the lifeblood of border existence.
At Moody Gallery, Terry Allen attaches car speakers to the glass covers of Technicolor pastels featuring monumental Southwestern landscapes. In doing so, he defines a careful collage of details both visual and aural. He could just as easily be taking the pulse of the landscape, or transmitting voltage to a patient with cardiac arrest. Titled "Voices in the Wilderness," the drawings, objects and recorded sounds tie into Allen's obsession with motion and journeys -- how time, space and one's senses are intermingled as one travels from point to point.
Strewn on the gallery floor are wires that connect desert refuse: an old shoe, a broken chair, a rubber inner tube, a fake rock with graffiti, a cinderblock. The wires look like travel routes of sorts, mapping a trek to Juarez by way of Montezuma Castle, Sunset Crater and Shiprock. A monitor inside a large, head-shaped iron cage (with light bulbs for eyes) plays a silent video showing two seemingly endless and equally hypnotic journeys. Peering through a chainlink fence, we follow two men as they cross the Rio Grande by the Juarez bridge. We're also taken along Western highways through electric storms, brilliant skies, pastoral valleys and churning muddy rivers.
The sounds emanating from the speakers -- birds, wind, cars speeding on the highway, guitar riffs -- expand space and control time. The combination of dissimilar media creates an atmospheric condition of perpetual turbulence that engages the viewers bodily and allows for a dynamic interchange or flow of sensations. Significantly, one gets caught up in the idea of motion, rather than destination, as the installation seemingly evolves, resolves and dissolves into itself.
Taken as a whole, so much "boy" art may give one pause. After all, the engine as masculine power principle and the studio as sanctuary where sacramental beer is drunk seem antiquated gender identities in the '90s. But Drake's and Allen's Texas twang belies an attitude that's coarse, edgy and hard, obsessed with a clinical examination of the underbelly of human existence.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Admirably, the artists have been true to their cultural identities, refusing to resign themselves to or defend themselves against prevailing art tides. But remember, there wasn't much to do while growing up in Lubbock, and coming of age there meant establishing a close relationship with your engines -- light out on the highway or get stuck in the flatlands. Along the way, Drake and Allen have added a little soul to the nuts and bolts, a spirit to the machinery.
"Voices In The Wilderness" shows through September 24 at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt, 526-9911.
"She Stood Over the Heater and Cried" shows through October 1 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, 524-1593.
"Poison Amor" shows through October 9 at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, 743-9530.