Jeffrey Vallance's career has followed its quixotic global trajectory for over fifteen years, alighting in locales exotic or mundane, resting in peculiar cultural bywaters (the U.S. Postal Service, talk shows, underground magazines), surfacing regularly in the mainstream art world, but operating elsewhere. It is almost impossible to discuss Vallance's first large retrospective (1995’s The World of Jeffrey Vallance at the Santa Monica Museum of Art) without conjuring the specter of Mike Kelley. Not only have the two been consistently lumped together, as contemporaries with overlapping domains, but Kelley's own recent overhyped retrospective (1994’s Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes at LACMA, organized by the Whitney) remains the somewhat coercively ordained standard for international success by a Los Angeles artist.
Against this standard, Vallance's show reveals a puzzling discrepancy: given the quality of work and the curatorial coherence, both of which arguably outstrip the Kelley show, the choice of venue (SMMOA, though influential, is more of a large alternative space than a lofty institution) and the attendant absence of media hoopla indicate a stand-offishness remarkable even for today's skittish art community. Although it is tempting to pin this failing on the art world's taste for prurience and craving for heroics -- however mock (not to mention the difficulty in schmoozing from Iceland) -- and although those issues are doubtless at play, to me the critical distinction pivots around the usually disregarded fact that both Vallance and Kelley are excellent drawers.
Even a cursory survey of their work reveals both vaunted conceptualists as adept at drawing the line -- both literally and uh, figuratively. While it would be fruitful to examine both artists' oeuvres as extensions of the medium, it is Jeffrey Vallance's work -- so superficially genteel -- that seems to cross into new terrain and inspire real anxiety. Vallance's work is about linearity, about seeing boundaries as from above, then defining them aesthetically instead of politically – which is to say defensively, in terms of us and them.
Acting on the assumption that the line separating the powerful from the meek is for graphic emphasis only -- and deserving of attentive and appreciative exploration and documentation as such -- dis¬solves the rigid separatist function with which it is generally attributed, and allows for a political vision that is simultaneously non-threatening and more dangerous to the status quo than more common demonizing approaches. Vallance's schema falls somewhere between a peculiarly superficial version of Jungian acausal connection and an appropriation of paranoiac conspiracy systems of information organization, unfolding from a position whose door swings both ways, between inner and outer worlds with poised, non-judgmental objective regard. Those who look for subversive political irony in the work are satisfied, as are those who seek affirmation of the barely hidden magical interconnectedness of all things.
By making unexpected connections across social, political, physical, and philosophical borders, and then articulating the results as fully and as clearly as he is able, Vallance erases the barrier between art and life without making any statement about it, as if the split were another formal convention to which the artist merely chooses not to subscribe; a line that may be altered at will, for the sake of the overall picture. To me, it seems that Vallance's work is about the way ideas connect to generate culture, rather than the actual content of the narratives, compelling though it may be. Trains of thought that ought not to converge, do; and the system crashes.
Thus, Vallance's strongest bodies of work occur as sort of a fallout from impossible cartographic events: the scuba fin presentation of the King of Tonga; the acceptance of the Blinky the Friendly Hen into the pet cemetery. These are transgressions of an unfamiliar order, breaches in protocol that link two coordinates in space/time that were never meant to meet. The effluvia then precipitated are like some organic defense reaction, an embarrassment of tchotchkes to disguise the wound in the logical order of things. Small wonder Jeffrey Vallance makes the art world more nervous than Mike Kelley, who at least recognizes the same playing field, even if he does a number two on it.
Small wonder also that Vallance is currently finding a measure of welcome in Las Vegas, land of sudden displacements, where Tiki gods encrust improbable ruptures with glittering scar tissue galore. Jeffrey Vallance's Groucho McLuhanesque probes constitute one of the most detached and intelligent critiques of social and cultural pseudo-consensus operating today. Resolutely non-judgmental, emphatically democratic, Vallance's work represents one of the few tenable positions in current art practice that doesn't rely on the denial of the last twenty years of art history to know where to draw the line.
Doug Harvey is an artist and writer in Los Angeles, and the treasurer of the Societee de Naifs.
Published in Peter Hamilton's zine UCLArt , 1995
Photo of Jeffrey Vallance in Umea, Sweden by DH (2000)