To borrow from David St. Hubbins' trenchant observation in This Is Spinal Tap, "it's such a fine line between stupid and clever." Indeed. And nowhere (aside from mockumentaries perhaps) is that more clear than in the higher conceptual realms of contemporary art. A person can get away with a lot in the name of "art." You can impale cars on spikes, send old art projects up in a pyre of flames, splatter paint on a 16-foot-length of canvas while suspended naked from the ceiling and even buy a frozen chicken from the grocery store and make it your pet. Such acts float dangerously close to the deflating buttresses of the "but is it art?" argument - confusing the general public while delighting art world insiders. At the very least, a viewer walks away either thinking he doesn't get art at all or he's got all the makings for some conceptual art of his own - a head of lettuce, a staple gun and maybe a set of oil pastels - right at home.
It's that sense of humor and possibility that underlies EWU and SFCC's "Visiting Artist Lecture Series," which this year operates under the theme "Populism in Contemporary Art." While Jeffrey Vallance, frequent contributor to the LA Weekly and The Fortean Times, has never (as far as we know) impaled cars, cremated art or hoisted himself up au naturel above an enormous canvas, he has adopted a grocery store chicken ("Blinky, the Friendly Hen") and given her a ceremonial funeral and her own plot in a pet cemetery. And in doing so, Vallance - who lectures on his work this Tuesday and Wednesday in Spokane -- put himself on the art world's map.
Vallance has discovered not only the "Four Clowns of Turin" - strangely Bozo-esque images deep in the scorch marks of the Shroud of Turin - but also invented "AntiChrist Ice Cream," a "Gorbachev flavor at Baskin-Robbins" inspired by the former Soviet leader's possibly Satanic birthmark. Vallance's ad campaign for the ice cream - with its hand lettered typeface and sketched portraiture -- is as gleefully unprofessional and cut-and-paste as old school Lynda Barry riffs.
"You're never quite sure where the line is with Vallance. He plays that uncertainty, that tongue-in-cheek thing really well -- but at the same time, you don't know for sure that he isn't serious," says Tom O'Day, director of the SFCC Gallery of Art.
Vallance has even gone so far as to curate a show of Thomas Kinkade paintings - ubiquitously available in major malls all over North America - in Santa Ana's "serious" Grand Central Art Center.
"Again, it's not quite clear what [Vallance is] doing with something like that," says O'Day. "It was the first time Thomas Kinkade was displayed in a real art gallery. But is it meant to be serious? That's the fun of it."
Not surprisingly for one who writes about the paranormal for The Fortean Times, Vallance is fascinated with religious iconography. He has one series devoted to images - including Bigfoot, Voltaire, Elvis, Lincoln, Charles Manson, his old chicken friend Blinky and Mexican wrestler and political activist Superbarrio -- found in the right and left eyes of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In another panel, Vallance proclaims that "The Devil Hates Art" and lists all the reasons why.
In fact, if Vallance is anything, he's a playful disciple of the random and the absurd. In this world of fast-food TV, Christian fundamentalism and hyper-serious art speak, what he does - with his intuitive connections, religious obsessions and mirthful complicity with his audiences - is nothing short of brilliant.