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Terry Allen's Playful "Public Perception" for Gym Goers

Posted on April 19, 2024 at 10:53 AM by Monet Butler

Visual artist and songwriter Terry Allen (b. 1943) is known internationally as a Renaissance man. With 12 albums of music and copious amounts of artwork in different mediums (drawing, sculpture, and mixed media), it made complete sense that Allen branched out with the installation of A Public Perception. This installation features eighteen neon signs stationed both inside and outside State Gymnasium on the Iowa State campus. This was the first “all neon” installation in Allen’s illustrious career.

An outdoor entrance to State Gymnasium showing the underneath of the skywalk which has a neon sign saying You Are Now Entering A Living. Inside the skywalk there are more neon signs saying Being, Mind, Soul, Heart, Organ, Etc.


Terry Allen with his hand on an elliptical machine handle and neon words on the ceiling reading Being, Mind, Soul, Heart, Organ, Etc.The neon signs greet, support, tease, and bid adieu to any gym goer. At the entrance, Allen welcomes visitors through the underside of the walkway with a white neon sign stating “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A LIVING…” which could be a reminder that by choosing to come to the gym, you are making an active choice to live life to the fullest. On the ceiling of the skywalk, which is directly above this welcome sign and can be seen from the ground outside, is a cluster of multicolored neon signs that read “BEING,” “MIND,” “SOUL,” “HEART,” “ORGAN,” and “ETC.” and show what can change by making the choice to be more active. All these things can be improved when a person begins to pursue fitness. It is not a coincidence that these two signs are directly above and below each other. By entering a new fitness lifestyle, there is a reminder of what can improve.

The rock-climbing wall at State Gymnasium with a neon sign in the background saying Heaven Now WhatAllen also takes the occasional playful jab at the gym goers. At the top of the rock-climbing wall reads “HEAVEN/NOW WHAT?” It teases that while the climbers may have reached the top of the wall (Allen’s “heaven") this is by no means the end of the road. Within the swimming pool is the neon yellow “SWEAT,” continuing Allen’s sense of humor. On the second floor there is a similar loving taunting with the sign that from afar reads “FAT,'' which upon closer inspection reads “FATe.” Perhaps it’s a reminder to pay attention to harmful internal dialogue and re-examine it.

Scattered throughout the gym are various demands for action. Each word’s location is carefully curated by Allen, such as “GASP” and “BREATHE” by the track, and “REST” on the exterior facade as people exit. The weight section has the words “HOP,” “SKIP,” and “JUMP,” ironically the last place you would want to be flailing about. Above it all is the reminder “THE BODY IS SERIOUS BUSINE$$,” comparing an economically flourishing professional organization to a healthy body.

Terry Allen leaning against a tiled wall with a window with a yellow neon sign that says SweatStudent lifting dumbbell weights in the weight room at State Gymnasium. The ceiling has a neon sign that says The Body is Serious Business. The last two S are dollar signs.


As you leave, there is a declaration of a “BIG ORTHOSCOPIC TOMORROW.” While people may associate “orthoscopic” with glasses and other eyecare, in reality it is the idea of an undistorted view. By working out, people leave with a clear mind, harkening back to the cluster of signs on the ceiling of the walkway.

The signs are all bright and demand attention. The neon medium is essential to capture the eyes, as these words and phrases certainly would not draw as much attention if merely on a poster. By using neon, Allen uses bright colors to pique interest away from weights or machines to the various signs. Scattering around the different signs not only creates a very effortless aesthetic of the gym, but also invites new fitness fanatics to explore the gym to seek each sign out. A Public Perception challenges the idea that working out is only for a certain type of person, inviting new people to take their health seriously and to take note of how their life and wellbeing improve with fitness.


Monet Butler
University Museums 2024 Pohlman Fellow
ISU Class of 2026 | Political Science

Terry Allen (American, b. 1943)
A Public Perception, 2011
Neon and glass
Commissioned by University Museums. An Iowa Art in State Buildings Project for the Recreation Services Expansion. Located in the State Gymnasium addition, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Photos by Cameron Campbell. Images ©University Museums, Iowa State University, 2012.

Categories: Artists, Students

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