March 2011, Interview with Jeffrey Vallance
Jeffrey Vallance is many things. He is a prankster. He is someone examining cultural anthropology in relation what lies deep within the kitsch and symbolism of everything from ties and gum to cultural icons and mythologies. He is a writer looking seriously into collisions and resonances between the high and low. He is also an artist. His wide range of artistic work has been guided simply by deep intellectual curiosity and a playful sense of aesthetics and semiotics.
Blinky has become an icon. The friendly hen began as a mere video of a prank that played with the notion of pet cemeteries, but it also touched on our sense of death and mortality... as well as processed foods and commerce. It has inspired many artists and has had quite a life of its own. This is the world and work of Jeffrey Vallance. He can see a piece of gum that looks a bit like Richard Nixon and spin a deep semiotic examination of archetype, form and the cult of personality. He can take his experiences as a teen in the sometimes maligned San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles and develop an in depth understanding of mythology. He sent neckties, as a prank, to the leaders of many nations, asking for an exchange, and we laughed - but he had also, again, created a serious exploration of mythology, symbolism and cultural exchange. He works in many mediums, but always with a blend of play and serious examination. As well as showing in many museums, he has been conferred with the royal title of Honorary Noble by the Tongan National Center and has curated a show at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.
Jeremy Hight: as a fellow San Fernando Valley boy I have long wondered what effect this fascinating and, by some, maligned place has had on your interests and your work. Do you think the odd layers of mythology and perception of this place (porn capital, lost mall world, orange groves and spots of mystery, land of early studios, one timean almost separate entity trying to break away from Los Angeles).
Jeffrey Vallance: Concerning the Valley, art critic Dave Hickey wrote that the Valley is “where authenticity comes to die.” As a child, I grew up in a collection of fake environments, including faux-Polynesian, Old West, English Tudor, Scandinavian, Moorish, Victorian and Alpine. I played in abandoned, deteriorating Hollywood sets. As the imposed culture sprawled across the land, the real culture disappeared — ranch houses were torn down, orange groves were bulldozed, rivers were cemented in— while evidence of the indigenous people was completely forgotten. I watched everything from the sidelines, and I learned how to infiltrate various culture groups while remaining detached. There were many lessons to be learned in those days, but now the mass-culture infestation is complete; now Southern California is all mini-malls and tract homes, without an inch of uniqueness left.
Hight: Who are some of your influences? Who and what were some of the early ones? What now are some things or folks that you are fascinated with?
Vallance: Early influences include my grandfather, Norwegian folk artist Karl Reese, who taught me how to paint and for whom I am middle-named. Then there’s cartoonist Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family; Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther; writer Charles Fort; anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl; Aubrey Beardsley; Knut Hamsun, Herman Melville, Ed Kienholz, Hermann Nitsch, Andy Kaufman and Chris Burden. Early influential films include Harold and Maude, Monde Kane and The Loved One. As for artists that I like now, I enjoy the work of my friends — Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Jim Shaw, Marnie Weber, Cameron Jamie, Suzanne and Robert Williams, Jeff Gillette, Laurie Hassold, and my wife, Victoria Reynolds.
Hight: What role would you say kitsch plays in your work?
Vallance: I don’t even like that word. I think how I approach kitsch is that I use it as a tool. For example, when I was contacted to do an exhibition of the work of Thomas Kinkade, the master of kitsch, I assembled his work as installations that could be read separately and simultaneously with reverence, irony and/or high art, while at the same time could be interpreted as kitsch, low art and/or mass-marketing. Each viewer would enter into the reality of their own mindset.
Hight: Do you see your work as "interventionist" or "infiltration” or more of cultural anthrpology, semiotics and play? What mix do these flavors make in your process?
Vallance: I see the infiltration work as getting away with murder — in a harmless way, of course, but fast-spreading and pernicious. At the moment, I’m teaching a class at CalArts on infiltration. Here are the 20 principles of infiltration I teach to my students:
1. Selection: Carefully choose your subject.
2. Research: Know everything there is to know about your subject.
3. Vernacular: Learn the “language” of the subject.
4. Legitimize: Link yourself with some semiofficial authority.
5. Summit: Meet your subject in the field.
6. Friendliness: Be pleasant and forthcoming.
7. Reassurance: Gain the confidence of the subject.
8. Perspective: See the world, for the moment, from the subject’s point of view.
9. Oneness: Become one with the subject.
10. Reveal: Slowly, over a period of time, disclose what you want to accomplish.
11. Reciprocate: Expound on the beneficial aspects of your proposal.
12. No Disparity: Never argue with the subject.
13. Acceptance: Never question the core beliefs of the subject.
14. Regulations: Carefully follow all rules set by the subject.
15. Crossover: Go too far and cross over to the subject.
16. Attachment: Create a bond with your subject, as you may want to collaborate again.
17. Openness: Be totally open with your subject—tell them exactly what you are doing.
18. Impose: Push your idea to its limit.
19. Contamination: Write the new chapter.
Vallance: In 1985, I met the King of Tonga for the first time. He weighed almost 500 pounds, and his doctor told him to lose weight. (Although, in Tonga, chiefs and personages are traditionally of mighty girth, so it’s desirable to have an enormous king.) So the king was trying to lose weight, and he decided that swimming would be the best exercise, but he was having some difficulty on account of his huge size. Before leaving on my trip, I found out that he was searching for swim fins to fit his enormous feet. When I arrived, I presented his majesty with a pair of king-size flippers, which seemed to make him very happy. This first meeting with the king set the template for meeting with other cultural figures, politicians and dignitaries.
Fifteen years later, in 2000, I met the king again, and he told me that he had used the flippers until they fell apart, and that he had, in fact, lost a great deal of weight. I was pleased that I had played a small role in improving his health; however, in the meantime, I had gained weight. For my efforts, the Tongan National Center awarded me the royal title of Honorary Noble.
Hight: Would you say your work more embraces many roles and names or attempts to quietly destroy those barrier/borders and distinctions?
Vallance: With each new series, I delve into new areas while allowing certain recurring themes. But constantly changing is not in step with the art world, which wants artists to paint the same painting over and over again, ad infinitum, for capitalist consumption. As I infiltrate various cultural institutions, my role changes from artist to cultural ambassador, anthropologist, explorer, writer, curator, paranormal researcher, professor, crackpot, prankster and quasi-spiritualist; but the methodology stays the same: First, I research everything there is to know about a subject, including traveling to meet with authorities in the field. To me, these travels are like prolonged performance-art pieces. Upon return to the studio, I make stuff in whatever material I feel is appropriate — photography, video, text, and so on. Next, I exhibit the work in a public place. And finally, documentation of the work is placed on the Internet with the aim that it will spread like an urban legend, contaminating various fields of knowledge.
Hight: What are you working on right now?
Vallance: I’m working on three new projects. First, I’m writing my own bible and gospel that will be published and distributed internationally. Second, I’m doing a series of enamel paintings of heroes and anti-heroes based on the style of work I made in the ’80s. The third project is a series of pieces revolving around a performance I did in London in which I hired five psychic mediums to channel spirits of famous dead artists — Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock. The performance was presented in the style of a panel discussion in which the audience could ask questions to the spirits. I’m currently preparing text, video and spirit photography of the performance.
Hight: What show or shows do you have coming up soon?
Vallence: I’m having a show called “The Nixon Room,” which will be presented at The Nixon Room of the Whittier Public Library.
Hight: Would you say your stints on talk shows and MTV were also partially also a performative exploration? Conceptual beyond just presenting your work? If so how so?
Vallence: My appearances on MTV and talk shows were like infiltrations into a segment of popular culture. I quit the MTV show because IRS Records, the company that sponsored the show, did not understand the work that I wanted to do. It would be almost three decades before MTV broadcast anything close to what I wanted to do — enter the series Jackass.
Hight: Blinky. What first inspired you to send this plastic wrapped bird to the pet cemetery and into our hearts? Did the project evolve beyond what you initial planned or even imagined in terms of how it turned out and also how it has entered such a larger pantheon?
Vallance: The Blinky piece was originally like a prank — just so see what I could get away with. I thought it had no meaning at all. But I soon realized that Blinky was a stand-in for us. In that way, I could go through all of society’s death rituals without having to produce a “real” dead body. At the time of the Blinky piece, I was a vegetarian so the piece has an underling vegan statement as well. Over time, I came to believe that Blinky was an archetype of sacrifice. I saw serious correlations between Blinky’s sacrifice, suffering, death, burial, exhumation, and cultification, to the story of Christ’s Passion. It was as if this story — without any specific symbols — is written on the human heart.
Like no other work, the Blinky piece has caught the public’s imagination. Blinky is listed in several California travel guides and there are manifold references to the Friendly Hen on the Internet. The Blinky saga has become akin to an urban legend, with even the pet cemetery workers embellishing the story of the funeral service to include “hooded chanting mourners holding candles.” On Blinky’s grave, I often find strange votive offerings left by cemetery visitors. I was invited to be a guest on Late Night with David Letterman to tell the Blinky story. A reference to Blinky appeared on the TV show Married with Children in the episode “Yard Sale” in the form of “Winky the Dead Bird.” On The Simpsons show, Blinky’s headstone can be seen at the Springfield Pet Cemetery. Blinky is now like a cult thing. I have to be very careful in exhibiting Blinky Relics, as they are the pieces most frequently stolen from museums (for who knows what diabolical purpose).
Hight:. What relationship would say you have between your writings, research and art?
Vallance: I see all aspects of my work as equal, but I know the art world does not see it that way. They seem obsessed with the new product, just as the automobile industry is with each year’s new model car. In terms of longevity, a book or an article or an item on the Internet lasts longer and is seen by more people than an exhibition lasting one month.
Hight: What do you think of how artists link Banksy in relation to your 1977 LACMA gallery socket exchange prank/work?
Vallance: My Wall Socket Plate Installation at LACMA came three decades before Banksy, but Banksy seemingly has more funding and better PR. Most of my favorite art pieces I believe were originally pranks that were later canonized in art history — like Duchamp’s urinal, or Chris Burden’s Shoot. One of the earliest prankster artists was Hugh Troy, who, in 1935, carved a human ear out of a hunk of dried beef and stuck it into a van Gogh exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Hight:. Would you say your grandfather and family interests and passions have had a large impact on your interests and explorations of the mythology and even beyond that area and surface in a lot of your work ?
Vallance: My grandfather, Karl Knudsen Reese, learned his art in Trondheim, Norway. He immigrated to the United States around the turn of the century and went to art school in New York. He worked in rosemaling — literally, “rose-painting” — a Norwegian form of tole-painting. He also painted naive folk-art–style depictions of Norwegian fjords and Viking ships. I mentioned earlier that he was my first painting teacher, and I believe this is why much of my work has retained a folk-art–like quality. Some have conjectured that this naive style is an affectation, but it is something that I truly learned and that has stayed with me. It is perhaps interesting to note that Karl’s uncle, Emil Knudsen, was a world-renowned psychic, and I believe this connection has inspired my paranormal work.
Hight: What new projects do you have coming up?
Vallance: When my bible comes out, I’d like to convince a preacher to do a sermon based on my gospel at a church. Afterward, I’d like to participate in an interfaith panel discussion on the merits or flaws of my scripture, accepting whatever praise or condemnation my version of the bible receives.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief