PRINT May 1996


LAST FALL, at Ron Lee’s World of Clowns, Jeffrey Vallance curated the most exuberantly disturbing show I have ever seen. Minutes after entering Mr. Lee’s museum, which occupies a patch of Martian landscape 20 minutes outside Las Vegas, I began to experience a stomach-twirling cocktail of elation and nausea. It was no doubt helped along by the female clown who greeted me at the door, and a surge of dizzy memories sparked by the indoor carousel, but the most disorienting aspect of “Clown Oasis” was its uncanny disappearing act. Like an illusion in a Siegfried & Roy show, Vallance’s exhibition was there, and not there, at the same time.

World of Clowns isn’t your typical exhibition space. Cluttered with hundreds of pewter clown statuettes (Ron Lee is a leading manufacturer of such figurines), it houses clown-costume exhibits and a memorable sequence of display windows (one labeled “Painting”) behind which minimum-wage earners can be seen pumping out company product in museum “studios.” Within this setting, Vallance curated what amounted to a stealth exhibition. Most of the art in “Oasis”—including appropriately themed works by Terry Allen, Jim Shaw, Renee Petropolous, Cameron Jamie, the Rev. and Mrs. Ethan Acres, and Vallance himself—was displayed on easels that had been decorated with balloons, carefully matching a motif in the endless clown mural covering the walls behind them.

Admittedly, a few pieces might have seemed out of place: a hybrid Salamander/Clown Combination, 1995, by Mike Westfall/Necrogen Corporation, floated somewhat ominously in a specimen jar, while Philip Argent’s exquisite pencil drawing, New-Born Clown, 1995, conjured maternity-ward nightmares. But as a package, the show looked right at home—so much so that the border between art objects and their surrounding environment all but dissolved. The status of the work seemed uncertain, almost clownish, and consequently, one’s attitude toward the art also began to waver. It was as though you had caught it in the act of becoming something else—but what?

Over the last year, Vallance has curated a series of similar exhibitions in the Vegas area, seamlessly integrating contemporary art into existing displays at the Liberace Museum, the Magic and Movie Hall of Fame, the Debbie Reynolds Casino-Museum, and Cathedral Canyon, a religious sculpture garden 48 miles to the east. Each of Vallance’s shows plays with boundary issues, cultural camouflage, and esthetic contamination. “How close to its source can a work of art be and still preserve its identity?” Lawrence Alloway asked in his 1966 essay “The Development of British Pop.” To which Vallance replies: Why preserve its identity at all?

Invisibility, of course, was a notion beloved by Conceptualists: beyond the concept of the “dematerialized” object, artists such as Maria Nordman envisioned projects that would disappear from sight by becoming indivisible from their specific real-life settings. Vallance’s curatorial work dog-ears a page from that particular chapter, but adds a significant twist: now art’s vanishing act isn’t motivated by quibbles about physicality; instead of forgoing material form, the objects in Vallance’s shows find their invisible grace by temporarily submerging, commingling, and immersing themselves in a tidal wave of things.

Vallance’s strategy makes perfect sense in Las Vegas. In other cities, institutions of “high” culture erect clear boundaries to distinguish their activity from “low” forms of entertainment. In Vegas, however, the reigning esthetic is one of promiscuous admixture. The Strip’s themed megaresorts are appealing not, as many have said, because they simulate exotic locales, but because their fantasy motifs are so thoroughly and perversely contaminated that they make a burlesque of purity, a mockery of distinctions. It’s all about getting lost, and on one level, that’s a spiritual pursuit: like much Mannerist art, Las Vegas knows that transcendence may be expressed indirectly through a disruption of boundaries.

Vallance’s quest to curate our esthetic capital also continues a line of inquiry that has long distinguished his own art. Throughout his career, he has tested the borders between official and unofficial cultures, creating works that engage and/or infiltrate institutions such as the Vatican, the Richard M. Nixon Library, the Smithsonian, and even the FBI. He once went so far as to covertly install his own electrical outlet covers in galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and unbeknownst to museum officials, sent out invitations for his “opening” there.

Perhaps contemporary art might function more effectively, at this particular cultural moment, when keeping a low profile like that found in Vallance’s stealth displays—that is, inviting viewers to discover its very presence, instead of insisting on white-cube exhibitionism. David Hammons raised similar questions with his show last spring at Knobkerry, a store in New York dealing in African and Asian art and artifacts, where his own art was casually mixed in with items on crowded shelves, or consisted of rearranging the store’s wares into contingent assemblages that played a game of disappearance and reappearance.

Hammons’ installation had no firm dates: the artist, who occasionally showed up to make work in the store’s back room, kept it going for several months until he lost interest. Vallance’s shows are ephemeral in a more urgent way, generally remaining up for only a single weekend. Busloads of unsuspecting tourists visit them, but few travelers from the art world. Las Vegas, after all, doesn’t occupy much of a place on the contemporary-art map. But one of the “morals” of Vallance’s adventures in curating is that art can exist outside the normal channels and existing frequencies. Indeed, with their inspiring uncertainty, his exhibitions lead you to wonder how art can survive anywhere else.

Ralph Rugoff is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. He is the author of Circus Americanus (Verso).