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An Artist Goes to Sea (And Other Stories) : Tonga, Iceland, the Vatican--Jeffrey Vallance gets around. The artist's explorations are collected in a new retrospective.

April 09, 1995|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is chair of the department of liberal arts and sciences at Otis College of Art and Design

Many an American youth read "Kon- Tiki" with wide-eyed curiosity. Thor Heyerdahl's account of his open-raft journey to the South Pacific is prime adolescent stuff. But few have been as inclined to act out the promise of adventure as artist Jeffrey Vallance has.

Some 20 years later, still inspired by Heyerdahl, Vallance began a series of trips to exotic and remote lands. In 1981 he flew from his home in Canoga Park to the Island of Tonga where he met the king and presented him with a set of custom-made extra-extra-large swim fins. Vallance has also been received at the Vatican, and his art has been accepted into the Pope's personal collection. He is a Rubens for our time, doing portraits of officials such as the president of Iceland and District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry--after the latter's reported cocaine use was thought to have doomed his career. Vallance is also a James Bond character who infiltrates institutions and bends them to his will. He transforms these adventures into paintings, sculptures and installations.

Vallance's career has evolved slowly, with exhibitions and sales at respected national and international institutions. Art issues Press recently published his book, "The World of Jeffrey Vallance: Collected Writings 1978-1994"--a traveler's journal that occasionally seems lifted from the annals of "Ripley's Believe It or Not," including an introduction by critic Dave Hickey. A retrospective exhibition based on the book opened this week at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Gary Kornblau, editor of Art issues, says that he selected Vallance for a book because he is a rare artist who writes nonfiction in an independent style with independent thoughts.

"The Press is interested in relationships between art and power--cultural power, political power, personal power. Jeffrey's works and writings have bluntly engaged with power--not by criticizing but by engaging with it, visiting the king of Tonga and so on. In that, it was a perfect match for the Press' ambitions."

Hickey echoes this enthusiasm: "Jeffrey treats the whole world as a sacred event without in any way attempting to mitigate its banality. His work is about the quotidian magic." (Hickey, associate professor of art theory and criticism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, helped bring Vallance to teach at UNLV this spring.) During the past three years, Vallance has been traveling constantly in Europe and the United States, returning frequently to his native Los Angeles, where he is represented by the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Santa Monica.

In town recently to prepare for his retrospective, Vallance held forth over lunch, talking in his flat Valley accent about the art projects that have taken him all over the world.

A roly-poly and ingenuous 40-year-old with wire-rims perched on his upturned nose and blond hair cropped short, Vallance looks like a grown-up Boy Scout. Dressed in a black sweat shirt and jeans, a gold crucifix on a chain around his neck doubling as a pocketknife, he discusses his enterprises with a seriousness that only amplifies the works' absurdity.

Vallance begins by confessing that he was just interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corp. for its upcoming special on "tiki culture." "There is a resurgence of interest in the classic tiki culture of California," he says. "There were two sources for it--men who were in the war in the South Pacific, and Hawaii becoming a state. Both sources converged in Los Angeles in the '50s."

Vallance's first trip from Canoga Park to the Cook Islands, in 1981, was in search of the Polynesia that influenced the San Fernando Valley in the form of tikis and muumuus, poolside luaus and Don Ho records, pupu platters and Mai Tais at the Aku Aku Inn.

"But by the time I got to Polynesia," says Vallance, "there were fast-food restaurants, country-Western bars and rap music. I was collecting myths and images so I became interested in the collision of cultures. It's not anthropology, because that is trying to find the pure essence of culture. I'm interested in where things mix up and become hybrids and impure."

Through this first trip, Vallance discovered the tension between reality and fantasy that would become his source material.

"The power of the work is that it's all real," says Vallance. "I really met the king of Tonga, I really went to Iceland and met the president, I really went to Polynesia. People want to believe my book is fiction because they can't believe anyone would go and do all this stuff.

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