I have spent two months of life on the Amarillo Highway. Not at one time, of course. These 1,440 hours have been accumulated over the last thirty-plus years of traveling to Lubbock to see concerts and art shows and driving back and forth to Canyon from Amarillo. I have almost died in two car wrecks and had several other close calls on countless trips to the small towns that are islands in a great ocean of grass known as the Llano Estacado. Several roads are threads that tie my life together, and the Amarillo Highway is a major one. In fact, as I write this, I can look out my window and see it running past my backyard.
For those unfamiliar with the Texas Panhandle, the Amarillo Highway is the 124-mile stretch of Highway 87 (now I-27) between Lubbock and Amarillo. It is also the title of what is arguably Terry Allen’s most famous song, and the lead track on his 1979 album Lubbock (on Everything). This record speaks to my reality of being a contemporary artist from a place that is not contemporary. Allen is a Lubbock native and an artist of considerable note. The Museum of Texas Tech is showing his exhibition Down in the Dirt: The Graphic Art of Terry Allen, so last weekend I drove down those “four lanes of hard Amarillo Highway” one more time to see his work because, while I love his music, I’ve never been a huge fan of his art
I recognize my opinion may be a result of personal taste. While Allen grew up in Lubbock, he moved away to go to college at Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. This school has many famous artist alumni, but two of the biggest dogs are Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell. Both were at the school almost a decade earlier than Allen, but they represent the two distinct styles of work that dominated the art world at that time. Larry Bell is a Light and Space artist, a subset of Minimalism, and one of my major influences. I have long been fascinated with his glass cubes and vapor drawings that use geometric form and materiality, rather than imagery, as their content.
Ed Ruscha, on the other hand, is a major figure of the L.A. Pop Art movement, and his work relies on images and text. I am fond of Ruscha’s work as well, and I love the way he puts his paint on the canvas, even if the content is representational. I also consider his serial images of swimming pools, parking lots and every building on the Sunset Strip masterworks of conceptual art. One of these projects, Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, features various manifestations of petrol peddlers along Route 66 between his childhood home of Oklahoma City and his current home of Los Angeles. One of the photos from this series, which happened to be taken in Amarillo, became the source for Standard Oil Station, arguably his most famous work, which he ended up reworking multiple times as paintings and prints.
If I am Team Bell, Terry Allen is clearly Team Ruscha. Both Allen’s and Ruscha’s work utilizes recurring images and themes, constant integration of text, and manifests across a variety of several media, including printmaking. Down in the Dirt features Allen’s print works — this is where I began to connect with the show. While I consider myself a painter, my MFA focus was printmaking, which Allen also studied at university. Almost all the works in the show are lithographs. There are a few etchings too, but I found his fusion of photo-plate and drawn stone lithography — often with collage or other hand embellishments — particularly effective.
Yellow Man’s Revenge, a lithograph with a chine collé image of Allen in drag as a youth, is the piece that first caught my attention.The gender-bending content of the work presents ideas of being “othered” and has the potential to connect to those who have been traditionally excluded for not adhering to prevailing social norms. His ruby red lips drew me into his personal history and showed an honesty that only can come from a page ripped out of a private sketchbook. The central image floats in a world of text and doodles on a sheet of enlarged and reproduced notebook paper. Allen’s sketchbook aesthetic is a stream-of-conscious mishmash of imagery and text.
Allen’s use of reproduced paper ground continues throughout the show. Other works build off of sheet music, most of which is tablature for Allen’s own songs, illustrating the inseparable relationship between his music and his visual art. This cross-pollination is underscored by the fact that viewers are serenaded by three of his albums playing quietly on speakers throughout the gallery. One of the central pieces in the exhibit is the Juarez Suite, a collection of six lithographs accompanied by a branded leather box containing the Juarez LP, Allen’s first album. This work is the ultimate example of the concept album, all the rage when it was released in the seventies because it combines the record with works of visual art. The box is presented in a vitrine as are the series of prints, which feature the first scenes of a story about two couples who tragically cross paths. It quickly becomes a tale of lovers-on-the-run when one couple, Jabo and Chic, head for the border while the other, Sailor and Alice, end up dead.
The Juarez Suite also acts as a lexicon for other works in the show. The prints are visual montages, a collection of non-sequitur images, combined with text. Allen’s use of text often relates to the lyrics of his songs and functions like a voiceover in a film. According to the statement by the show’s curator, Peter Briggs, Allen’s narratives lean towards “autobiographical material based on fiction.” Allen uses text in the white borders around the prints to break the rules of traditional print etiquette, causing the viewer to think these may be handwritten notes on the paper rather than a reproduction, thus blurring the lines between reality and fiction.
Hiding personal narrative in fiction is Allen’s modus operandi and is illustrated in another print series in the show. Positions in the Desert, J-U-A-R-E-Z builds on this theme, presenting it as a “mezcla (mixed) parade.” While predominantly a love story, Positions in the Desert becomes a metaphor for the highs and lows of long-term partnership. It also paints the world as a dangerous place for couples of “others,” whose relationships are forged outside cultural norms and tend to be at odds with tradition. Positions in the Desert is a series of sequential prints featuring images of roadkill, a trailer, and a middle-aged woman — all of which are recycled throughout the show — swimming in a sea of handwritten and typed text.
The images of roadkill strike a chord with me. One would hope that dead animals on the side of the road would serve as deterrents for other animals. For me, roadkill serves as a reminder of fallen friends. From my experience growing up in the straight-laced and conservative Texas Panhandle, it is easy to find oneself as an “other.” Many who find themselves excluded simply leave, but unfortunately those who remain deal with the harsh realities of being outside the status quo, and often fall into cycles of negative behavior that prematurely end their lives, leaving them damaged by the wayside, much like roadkill.
Allen’s use of elements familiar to me — like roadkill — is what connects me to his music. I have often found myself filling in the blanks of many of the songs on Lubbock (On Everything) because they sing the blues of struggles of a contemporary artist in the Texas Panhandle. I often quote from his song “The Beautiful Waitress,” the story of a waitress who asks him how he makes money from his art, to which he replies “I have to teach to do that.” This rings true to me as an artist and educator. I wanted to believe he taught up here on the Llano, but the truth is he had to move to California to do that. He taught in LA and in Berkeley, briefly, before teaching at UC Fresno for most of a decade, until he moved to Santa Fe in 1979.
This exhibition forced me to come to terms with my erroneous assumptions about Allen’s visual work and appreciate the power of his storytelling in both his art and music. If there is one of his songs I wanted to be true more than the others, it would be “Truckload of Art.” This tune tells the tale of artists from New York filling a truck with “influential heaps of artwork” to send to California to show the “snooty surfer upstarts” a thing or two, but the truck wrecks and all the art burns up in the subsequent fire. The smoke can be seen for miles around “but nobody knows what it means,” an obvious jab at the artists du jour of New York City. This point-counterpoint strategy is central to Allen’s work.
Texas culture often relies on the “us vs. them” mentality, and becoming an “other” is a common result of this division. One of the ways the young Terry Allen dealt with his “otherness” was to make dirty drawings to impress his friends. He carried his use of inappropriate content into adulthood, and this exhibition includes several works that have offensive imagery. Allen comes from a generation that commonly employed shocking images and text as a symbol of protest. For these artists, this strategy is intended to draw attention to the tragedy of excluding people who are different and attacking policies that support this division. Allen’s work Sacrilege features a large swastika that can be seen from across the room, but upon closer investigation the piece reveals a protest against President Bush and the prevalent political climate of our home state.
Texas history is rife with this divisive dialectic, echoed today in everything from politics to football rivalries. In the Panhandle, the divide between farmers and ranchers feeds into a perceived rift between Lubbock and Amarillo that even plays out in our art histories. Amarillo has Georgia O’Keeffe, Lubbock has Terry Allen. This type of division is not Texas-centric, and it extrapolates into the larger art world, represented in Allen’s “Truckload of Art,” which is a ballad of the NYC-versus-LA art scene contest. I even fell prey to a version of this divisiveness earlier in this essay with the Team Bell/Team Ruscha diatribe, which is a thinly veiled attempt to claim the superiority of Minimalism over Pop Art. One can expand this further into the greatest art wrestling match of the twentieth century: abstraction versus representation.
What I love about Minimalism’s stripped-down aesthetic is that it forces the viewer to apply their own content to the work. This result jumpstarts an internal dialogue; Terry Allen’s work does the same thing through juxtaposition — he takes something beautiful and hides it behind something ugly. He tells the truth and disguises it as a lie. The space Allen’s work creates between contrasts is one of introspection. This effect led me to a realization: maybe my initial dislike of his work came from a bias.
I grew up in the shadow of O’Keeffe, but she was here in Amarillo for less than three years. Terry Allen grew up in Lubbock, it molded him, and even if he moved away from the Texas Panhandle, it is a part of him as much as it is me. His pictures and words come from a world I know, but they are woven together so well that they create a narrative that more people can relate too. Down in the Dirt made me come to terms with my own preconceptions. Instead of focusing on the differences, I realized I should work on finding the connections.
Down in the Dirt: The Graphic Art of Terry Allen is on view at the Museum of Texas Tech in Lubbock through March 2022.