It is very difficult to find any coherence in Jeffrey Vallance’s last show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery which is divided into two different bodies of work. On one hand, there are the so called ‘Enamel Paintings; Idols & Villains’ and, on the other hand, the series ‘Islomania: Key West’ which represent two very contradictory conceptual strategies. I am saying this because the veteran L.A. artist is still probably best known for his late-’70s performance-cum-site-specific-piece, in which he bought a frozen chicken at the supermarket and had it interred at a pet cemetery. Over the years he’s brought a similarly humorous-slash-anthropological eye to the various ties binding culture, such as religion, myths, politics and pop culture. In the new series, he uses the visual imagery of the illustration of comics that has been at the core of the art of the West Coast 1990s art as in Barry McGee or Clare Rojas.
The problem with this show is that it deploys humour as a framing device (ready made). In other words, the ‘pun’ of this show seems to lie on how the visual language of the comic (low culture) depicts a sitter and that, in itself, should be understood by the viewer as a masterful example of Vallances ‘critical and humorous eye toward his own wide-ranging experiences’, as the press releases suggests. Vallance seems to ask far too much from the viewer who has to do all the work of conceptual reconstruction. The problem, however, that the viewer has with this reconstruction is that it demands two very different and incompatible strategies, the ready made, on one hand, and the conceptual inversion of low over high, on the other. In other words, Vallances puts Duchamp and Barry McGee in the mix and the result is far too cocky.
It does not come as a surprise that, at the end of the day, the source of meaning lies in the artist as a ‘personality’. This show only makes some sort of sense if we have some information about the artist’s childhood which, in any case, is irrelevant. In other words, the artist comedic strategy entails sarcasm but that sacrum is never properly articulated. We do not know why are we asked to laugh about these people in this way. One wonders what is that he finds so funny and where that transformation of the vernacular into art becomes meaningful as social or artistic critique.
The first series on view, Enamel Paintings: Idols & Villains, began in the late 1970s and early 80s. Vallance produced a group of paintings featuring images of television personalities in Rust-oleum and Krylon brand enamel paint, as well as graffiti decals intended for use on professional model train dioramas or “Hot Rod” cars. Many of the decals were produced during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-81, and included such slogans as “Nuke Iran” and “A Weenie for Kohmeini,” examples of how knee-jerk populist jargon during crisis situations find their way into seemingly apolitical American culture – e.g. the model train hobbies of middle class Americans. The recent enamel paintings begin where this series left off in the early 1980s, now featuring such historical political figures as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Kim Jong-il, television personality Connie Chung, actor Leonard Nimoy, the King of Tonga, artist Mike Kelley, best-selling author Temple Grandin, and many other eminent personalities, pop-culture heroes, writers, dictators, despots and scoundrels. What I found particularly interesting is the way he transforms ‘name dropping’ into a source of meaning. The past is pushed forward as a source of meaning as in ‘nostalgia’ while, at the same time, the deployment of irony functions as a rhetorical device not to engage with the viewer at a deeper level. From this point of view, this show is a silly thematisation of silliness.
Islomania: Key West was created during Vallance’s recent artist residency in Florida, and features documentation and imagery from the island. While in Key West, the artist took part in local traditions, including participation in the annual Ernest Hemingway “Papa Look-Alike Contest.” Vallance found the legendary character of Hemingway even more interesting than the real person, as stories of Hemingway’s adventures were essentially rewriting the biographical account of the author, merging fiction and reality. The exhibition presents a ‘performance relic’ from his participation in the Look-Alike contest, with anecdotal wall text and documentation much like the wall label a museum curator might use to contextualize a work of art. At this point, the self-monumentalisation as ‘making fun’ of the art world system becomes annoying. The show reaches the stupid with a series of drawings of local fish, as well as enamel paintings inspired by Key West tourist maps. Through the documentation of his experience, Vallance highlights the ways value is created through narrative, and how context shapes the meaning of objects, animals, and people on both a personal and social, cultural level. But isn’t this the point of language. I think this guy totally lost the plot. Just a thought.