At the Santa Monica Museum of Art, "The World of Jeffrey Vallance" presents a picture of suburban American culture that's a lot like the real thing. Both are banal--and unashamed of being mundane.
Vallance's homemade souvenirs and wacky documentations of trips to Iceland, Tonga, the Vatican, Samoa, Mexico City and Canoga Park are a testament to the resonance of the everyday. The only difference between this exhibition by a peripatetic artist and the cliches spewed by the tourist industry is that Vallance's version is fascinating, playful and empowering.
Driven by a radically democratic impulse, his art is personal without being self-indulgently autobiographical. For example, works whose subjects are the veil used to wipe the bleeding face of Jesus on the way to Calvary and the lance that pierced his side as he hung from the cross fit easily within the long history of Christian-themed art; but \o7 veil\f7 and \o7 lance\f7 also sound suspiciously like the artist's own last name. All of Vallance's projects insist that everything begins with individual experience.
To Vallance's fertile imagination, the blood-stained cardboard under a frozen, cellophane-wrapped chicken bears a family resemblance to the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth that supposedly wrapped Christ's body. This startling visual resemblance took the artist to Vienna, where his extensive research into this Christian relic uncovered an extraordinary link to George Washington, whose silhouette seemed to the artist to appear on the Shroud, printed in Christ's dried blood.
Further study of these stains led Vallance to see four portraits of sinister clowns on the Shroud. Enthralled by these mysterious connections, Vallance then traveled to the Vatican, where he splashed cappuccino on his face in a re-enactment of the miracle that produced Christ's image on Veronica's veil.
Further works go on to suggest that since Elvis Presley was reportedly reading a paperback about the Shroud of Turin when he died, the sweat-stained scarves Elvis tossed to ecstatic fans must be the Shroud's distant cousins. Pushing this perspective to fanatic extremes, Vallance even proposes that the miracle of Veronica's veil is re-enacted nightly at the Batman A Go-Go in his hometown of Canoga Park, where dancers drape their skirts over patrons' heads to perform the "Veil of Ecstasy."
In Vallance's world, alleged facts are weirder than obvious fiction, but a good story counts above all else. His ingenuous investigations treat modern society as an unexplored territory with immense potential for experiences that border on the sacred. There's only one requirement: These wonders must be experienced firsthand.
For viewers, this means that the world is whatever you make it. Seen through Vallance's eyes, anyone's surroundings constitute a magical environment where mystery and enchantment are within arm's reach, if you care to grab them. Even prepackaged, commodified components of American culture possess the potential to be talismans of something wondrous.
Vallance believes neither authorities nor officials, nor accepts stereotypical views. In his eccentric, innocent explorations of the quotidian, he finds compelling mysteries wherever he looks. This is do-it-yourself world-making at its best.
\o7 * Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 399-0433, through June 11. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.\f7
Observing Pain: If photographs could feel pain, they might look like Don Giffin's paintings at Christopher Grimes Gallery.
Initially, these abstract panels resemble high-tech monitors on which glowing images are currently being transmitted. As texture-less as TV screens, Giffin's pictures appear to be made by some photo-based process, with chemical emulsions that radiate an impenetrable, synthetic slickness. They grab your eyes by eliminating any appeal to tactility.
As you approach Giffin's paintings, however, their untouchable, seductive pull abruptly gives way to the unsettling impression that they're decaying before your eyes. What had seemed to be perfectly smooth, glass-like surfaces suddenly have the presence of taut, skinlike membranes that have torn, exposing their meaty interiors.
Like wounds too fresh or infected to have formed scabs, these raw, glistening fissures make the paintings look vulnerable. They make pain palpable and evoke mortality's inevitability. Comparisons to incurable diseases are also suggested.
Although all that can actually be seen in these jagged rips are layers of paint, gesso and tar that have puckered and pulled apart as they've dried, each indentation reads as if you were looking at living flesh, crisscrossed with thousands of nerve endings.
By pitting tactility against vision, Giffin intensifies the links between bodies and images. His corporeal abstractions bypass your mind to hit you in the stomach.
\o7 * Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3383, through April 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.\f7