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THE ART GALLERIES

La Cienega Area

October 23, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

There are flaky sidewalk-style portraits of a corpulent dark man in a braided military officer's hat and dark glasses. The very model of a Third World strongman. There are blond girls with shiny red lips, almond eyes and cute flat noses surrounded by coats of arms dedicated to everything from happy faces to 7-Eleven stores to body-shop pinups. It's easy enough to mistake Jeffrey Vallance's recent work for the fevered fantasies of a kid who lives in the Valley and contacts the world only through pen pals, fan clubs and nonstop television. The work bodies forth the spirit of an endearing nerd.

The clue that there is something else going on here is supplied by the painting of a map titled, "The World International Centers 1987." There are travel lines drawn from Canoga Park to Reykjavik, Iceland, and to Nuku'Aloea, Tonga. Sure enough, it turns out the exhibition is the fruit of real voyages Vallance made to these still-exotic places in '85 and '86. The dark strongman is actually Tonga's benevolent 462-pound king Taufa'ahau Tupon IV. One of the cute blonds is Vigdis Finnbogadottir, president of Iceland. Vallance had audiences with both during his sojourns. He made drawings of the king in costumes donned for various state occasions, collaborated with Tongan craftsmen in making scrimshaw and a bust of the king (probably the show's best work). In Iceland he mooned over the island's main symbols, its striking women and its phallic fish.

You might as well call the whole thing, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure in the Hinterlands." Vallance's art shares a lot of territory with the comedian's persona. Its relentless self-centeredness is irritating, its naivete winsome, its candor sometimes shockingly funny. Vallance came to notice some years back when he sent ties to various world leaders as a gesture of good will. Their replies (and ties) made a hilarious, sometimes touching revelation of every quality of leadership from arrogance to condescension, venality and an occasional touch of authentic grace.

The present exercise finds Vallance acting out the roles of Explorer, Anthropologist, Ambassador of Culture and Romantic Artist wrapped in some further combination of the innocent Candide and the wily Gauguin. There are moments when you want to tell the guy to get off it, grow up and really tell us what he's about. Then you realize that he is trying and what comes out is confirmation of that old female stereotype that says that all men are little boys at bottom. The idealized rationalizations of leaders covers their insatiable egotism. Romantic admiration for women is a shell around a viper's nest of fears. The more they pretend to be invulnerable heroes, the more they are revealed as pathetic nerds who communicate with the world only through pen pals, fan clubs and nonstop TV. (Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 669 N. La Cienega Blvd. to Nov. 14.)

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