Terry Allen’s Road Angel
by Veronica Ceci
Road Angel was only beckoning in comparative softness towards inevitable raucous reality.
Terry Allen’s new artwork on the grounds of The Contemporary Austin at Laguna Gloria was experienced by my ears before the rest of me. My eyes were busy with John Grade’s Canopy Tower, a nearby work, which is impressively integrated with its woodsy locale. The flashes of red birds in and out of Grade’s sculpture and the trees that support it were hypnotizing. Their dance, combined with the day’s glossy warm silence, lulled my thoughts into drowsy contemplation of the natural wonders of Texas. The tranquility lasted until an errant saxophone wail blaring from Allen’s Road Angel, a bronze casting of a 1953 Chevrolet Coupe, cut into the bliss.
The immediate reaction was to resent this intrusion. A perfect dream of meditative nature had been sliced through by the high pitch of hot brass. I was reminded of Allora and Calzadilla’s Track and Field, whose military tank growl penetrated far beyond the American Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, saturating the artworks close by. Then, as if to make a point, a large piece of machinery started its resonant grumble at a nearby construction site. The realization came that it wasn’t the sound component of Allen’s sculpture interrupting my reverie but rather the world altogether. Road Angel was only beckoning in comparative softness towards inevitable raucous reality. All was forgiven.
The dynamic percussive saxophone that first permeated my perception was then replaced by the amelodic toll of a rotary phone. It sounded for what seemed like several minutes, and for that entire duration, it fit in perfect synchronization with the expressive chirping of those lovely red birds. This feat of miraculous timing finally called me away from Grade’s impressive structure to investigate Allen’s work with all my senses.
This is not merely car with a radio, but rather a car that is a radio.
In sun-drenched January the hue of the piece was striking. There is not a singular word for the very specific green of Road Angel. It is a color both bright and dull, the pure green flavor muted with a dollop of white. The result, just this side of pastel, pops it off the brown and blue tinges of the spiky green palms that frame it. The purposeful patination calls to mind the resident torchbearer of Liberty Island. The color is green, like much around it, but also green, like nothing around it. This twinned effect of the pigment serves as an introduction to the multiple dualities of the work.
An abandoned car in the woods is something both in and out of place. Cars are intended for the road. However, anyone who has availed themselves of the travel possibilities of the United States’ rural highway system can attest that they oft find themselves outside of their natural habitat. Many cars spend their waning years in the grass, somewhere on the spectrum between treasured and abandoned, waiting to be resurrected. There is a clue to how Road Angel found itself in this position; the weight of its solitude rests on a front passenger wheel, stripped of tire and rim. This lack of support puts the sculpture in an uneven posture, threatening to sink into the loam beneath it. The car isn’t going anywhere. Of course, since it is not a car, but rather a piece of artwork, it isn’t intended to.
Road Angel is both a sculptural object and a sculptural project.
Road Angel continuously bumps up against the dualism of an object that is simultaneously fine art and an everyday item. Curious as to whether the trunk could be popped, my hand was millimeters away from testing it, before I realized that this was a sacred thing from which my prying fingers were banned. The casting is so perfectly executed that one can read the recommended tire pressure for the three intact wheels. Often, representational sculpture presents something that is generally moving frozen in a moment, giving our eyes time to see the detail that is lost in action. However, cars spend more time being parked than being driven. Thus the inert state of the sculpture is aligned with the normal function of the machine it depicts. The line between art and familiar object is further confused.
Despite its lack of mobility, the sculpture retains a sense of liveliness. The head and tail lights are operational and beam its presence outward. Sound is continually relayed from the work. Getting down and dirty to inspect the piece fully, I found that the entire underside acts as a giant speaker. The interior acoustics of the bronze collude with the basics of amplification to disseminate the soundtrack beyond the visible range of the work. This is not merely a car with a radio, but rather a car that is a radio.
The spectrum of sounds being broadcast is extensive. There are single-track noises, some recognizable, some mysterious. A scraping gnaw, which I later learned was a person eating barbecue ribs, gives a sense of unease. Songs composed by Allen and others as well as unstructured musical compositions are part of the mix. In one tune a Nico-esque crooner repeatedly laments, “Life is so stupid.” Another informs the viewer that, “Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas and not eat a chicken fried steak.” Spoken word narratives of surviving horrific crashes and stories of mysterious abductions kept me in place, eager to absorb the entire plot. In a casual conversation, Allen informed me that in addition to his own recordings he included sound pieces solicited from others. He continues to do so, creating a continuously growing playlist. Road Angel is both a sculptural object and a sculptural project.
The many dualities outlined here are not unique to Road Angel, but rather the epitome of Allen, who constantly presents one thing under the guise of another. In his print work, Rage, currently on display at the Flatbed Press Gallery, the word, vigorously written, is printed beneath the intricate delicacy of black lace tinged with gold. The dust-up in Kansas City over the placement of Allen’s Modern Communication was directly related to the tension between the title, its location in front of a municipal communications building and the figure—fingers in ears, shoe in mouth, blinded by a flapping tie—that the work introduces. This new piece by Allen is a step in the natural evolution of his exploration of ironic territory towards ever-greater levels of nuance. Like the highway in the distance, the mordancy of Road Angel lingers in one’s experience even while walking away.
The Contemporary Austin’s Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria is named in honor of a founding grant by the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation. This contemporary art destination presents exhibitions and permanent outdoor art installations on a site of great natural beauty on Lake Austin. Visiting hours are Monday–Saturday 9A–5P and Sunday 10A–5P