Los Angeles

Jeffery Vallance

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Wryly entitled “Icelandic Women and the King of Tonga,” Jeffrey Vallance's latest exhibition explored two very different cultures through the mythic power of their chief icons: Tonga's avuncular, 462-pound King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, and Iceland's beautiful, flaxen-haired women. Vallance followed his usual procedure of visiting the distant island communities and, through prearranged audiences with the local heads of state and collaborations with native craftsmen, combining and confusing the roles of artist, ambassador, sociologist, and travel correspondent to produce work that resembles a TV-generation encyclopedia of cultural hybridization. Like most of Vallance's projects, the show was divided into distinct yet interconnected semiotic parts. Hand-tinted photographs of the artist with the Tongan king and with President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland, alongside letters of introduction from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, documented Vallance's role as international emissary, while anecdotal texts, scrapbooks, and audio tapes described his experiences as an anomalous outsider and representative of dominant “alien” culture.

The work itself utilized both native and Western esthetic techniques. In Tonga, Vallance discovered the tradition of making drawings on delicate tapa cloth with the difficult-to-work, dark brown tongo dye (derived from the bark of the mangrove tree), using the bristly nut pods of a local palm tree as paintbrushes. The results were a series of crudely rendered “cartoons,” all 1985, in which a central icon (the king or indigenous fauna) is surrounded by an idiosyncratic cornucopia of signs, ranging from U.S. and Soviet missiles to local seashells. Vallance followed a similar compositional strategy in his drawings of Icelandic beauties. Using pencil and crayon, in the style of sidewalk portrait artists, Vallance flanked each woman's face with a sampling of local eels and fish, drawing a direct visual correlation between the archetypal sexual power of the two icons, a connection reinforced by both Icelandic and Polynesian folklore. The exhibition also included seven large paintings, five scrimshaw works, a wood carving, and a vase that he made from the trunk of a coconut palm.

Vallance integrates his subjects into a mediated worldview where semiotic colonization constantly nourishes and reproduces itself, so that notions of origins and ethnic “purity” are blurred and ultimately disintegrated. This is particularly evident in his large paintings, 1987, in each of which a central panel of island motifs is bordered by a series of small, uniformly shaped signs that look like a cross between heraldic shields, Swiss canton badges, and hot-rod decals. These “decals” are decorated with drawn or photographic images of Western film, TV, and rock stars, credit cards, corporate logos, military hardware, native symbols, and an occasional erotic vignette. Thus a simulated tapa-cloth painting of the king of Tonga in military uniform (an ironic comment on native appropriation of Western pomp and circumstance) is suddenly metamorphosed into the image of a monochrome television screen, surrounded by various significations of conspicuous consumption, from a Polynesian pinup for Best Western to a deadpan portrait of Los Angeles art guru John Baldessari.

Vallance's strength is his ability to deconstruct mediated culture without producing one-sided, Baudrillard-like philippics against “the obscene delirium of communication.” While it's true that one community's mythic heritage has become another's idea of kitsch (one thinks of Polynesian tikis adorning the bar at Trader Vic's), and Western interpretations of différance have usually led to romanticized mystification (Gauguin's entire oeuvre), Vallance sees the process as a more ambiguous discourse. Perhaps the key work in this respect is The World International Centers, 1987, a map summarizing Vallance's journeys and output over the past two years, where a single line unites Reykjavik, Iceland; Canoga Park, California (his home base); and Nuku'alofa, Tonga. Here Vallance merges the artist as creative “island” and his subjects as “fantasy islands” into a pluralist sign where distinctions between the local “other” and the international mainstream are at once reinforced and dissolved. Like Derrida critiquing Lévi-Strauss, Vallance discloses the myth of authenticity while laying strong claims for an “authentic” vision of his own.

Colin Gardner