New York

Jeffrey Vallance

Depending on your temperament, or maybe just your mood, it’s possible to have wildly divergent experiences with Jeffrey Vallance’s work. In certain lights, his thirty-year-plus project—here, in his debut at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, taking the form of a collection of “relics and reliquaries”—reads as a gently affirmatory paean to the latent poetry in castoffs and kitsch, a sincere mash-up of pop-culture doodads, dork-cool autobiography, and low-wattage ritual that eludes criticality and expands the range of aesthetic permissibility. Viewed from a slightly darker perspective, however, Vallance has always been precisely about criticality, a confirmed skeptic less interested in praising the myriad wonders of the everyday than in submarining the underlying mechanisms of meaning production on which our cultural belief systems depend. His winking totems—exploded soda bottles, Tiki soap-on-a-rope, anchorwoman-shaped coral, sitcom bubble-gum cards—are a joke, according to this analysis, and the joke is on pretty much everyone, especially folks whose profession involves ascribing value to often rather peculiar artifacts.

So does Vallance really value the things he shows, or is he instead making fun of the whole idea of valuing things? Where you come down on this question (and, indeed, whether you view these two scenarios as mutually exclusive or potentially coextensive) depends on several issues, not the least of which is what you make of Vallance’s droll, belletristic writing, because despite the fact that his practice is so overflowing with stuff, it remains first and foremost a literary endeavor. Though the ostensible focus here was a collection of roughly two dozen tchotchkes—each housed in its own quasi monstrance and arranged to ring Bonakdar’s first-floor gallery—the conceptual meat was to be found on the didactic panels hung next to the objects. These blurbs, which range in length from a few sentences to a few paragraphs (and in tone from Raymond Carver to David Sedaris), contain contextualizing tales that, depending on your view, either justify or lampoon the fondness Vallance purports to feel for his funky objets trouvés.

To call Vallance’s approach indiscriminate would be to damn it with faint praise: Soviet badges, a carpenter’s pencil, boxer shorts, hair mousse, and showgirl pasties are all deemed worthy of inclusion in the artist’s oddball pantheon. The theme of these works is sacred/secular, so to drive home the ecclesiastical subtext of the display format, Vallance also includes several explicitly religious “icons”—souvenir-stand trinkets blessed by the pope, Lutheran regalia, a life mask of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon that resembles, we are told, one of the “bloodstains” on the Shroud of Turin. This impulse toward pareidolia, the discernment of significant patterns in apparently random data, runs deep in Vallance’s work: whether in the aforementioned bit of coral, which Vallance treasures as an anthozoic doppelgänger for Connie Chung, or in a piece of found chewing gum in the unmistakable shape of former president Nixon’s head, which is part of Vallance’s enormous collection of Tricky Dick memorabilia.

There can be something toothless about the pure enthusiast mode of Vallance’s program, as in the description of The Brown Wall, 2009—a recreation of a knickknack-plastered wall from the artist’s home that serves as a kind of altar here for his church of the charmingly dispossessed—whose tone edges toward gee-whiz hipster-pad irony: “In August 2002, when my wife Vicky and I moved into our house in the Valley, we were faced with a weird dark brown wall in the living room. We considered painting it white to lighten up the room, but then we thought, ‘What if we just go with a brown theme, and put all brown objects on the wall, so it looks intentional?’” But when pitched just right—as in Blinky Bone, 2006, a relic from the artist’s goofy magnum opus Blinky, the Friendly Hen, 1978, for which he named a store-bought chicken and ceremoniously buried it at the Los Angeles pet cemetery, only to disinter it a decade later for an autopsy—Vallance seamlessly conflates the funny and the serious, the brilliant and the stupid, and makes the joke work, no matter who it’s on.

Jeffrey Kastner