In the Basement With Jeffrey Vallance

You know that one weird guy you occasionally glimpse on your block? The chubby, hairy guy who is, like, 50 years old and still lives in his parents' basement? Imagine that one day he asks you over for dinner and a tour of his subterranean digs, and for some strange reason, you accept.

Now imagine the details of such an encounter: He proudly shows you his collection of dusty, broken and sometimes-bloody objects—old knives and Nixon buttons and carpenter pencils and stray bones. He tells you of his travels around the globe, from the Vatican to the dive bars of Tonga. He recounts how he used to mail neckties to world leaders, and how back in the '70s, when he was already a full-grown man, he enjoyed a spirited correspondence with a pen pal who was not yet in her teens. Oh, and then he whips out the model of his penis he made when he was 20 years old. (“I used an old dried-up corncob, which I covered with papier mch and spackle that was sanded, gessoed and painted in acrylic.”)

Well, this experience would probably be a lot like Jeffrey Vallance's new show, “Relics and Reliquaries,” at the Grand Central Art Center's Project Room. Only, instead of being a horrifying and traumatic ordeal, Vallance's show is awesome.

While Vallance is one of the most interesting minds working today, “artist” somehow doesn't quite feel like the right word to describe what he does for a living. Vallance is a collector, a prankster, a traveler and a lovable eccentric . . . not so much an “artist” in the sense of drawing or sculpting stuff (although he dabbles in that), but more in the sense of living an absolutely fascinating life that he documents for our entertainment and education.

Vallance is an oddball with great follow-through: He takes the kind of kooky ideas that occur to you when you're 12—or when you're a really stoned college kid—and he carries them out to their wonderfully bizarre conclusions. And somehow, he actually persuades the world to go along with his crackpot schemes. When he mailed ties to politicians around the globe—an experiment he dubbed “Cultural Ties”—various heads of state actually took time out of their schedules to mail him neckwear in return. He is perhaps still most famous for buying a chicken from the butcher's counter at Ralphs, naming it Blinky and burying it with great ceremony at a pet cemetery (even going so far as to make “The Shroud of Blinky” from the blood of the creature's Styrofoam packing tray.) Such peculiar behavior has somehow led to his becoming an ambassador to Tonga, hosting his own show on MTV and even enjoying an audience with the freaking Pope.

“Relics and Reliquaries” is an exhaustive look at Vallance's life and times, featuring various objects he considers personally significant, served up in elegant little shrines and accompanied by his straight-faced commentary. Much of it is hilarious, like his recounting of his awkward stint as a houseguest at the home of his underage pen pal and the now-grown pen pal's own take on the matter. Some of it is surprisingly affecting, such as the bloody blanket Vallance kept following a horrific car crash, or the neck from an Orange Crush bottle that exploded during a family argument. Vallance has a long-standing obsession with Richard Nixon, and for one show, he actually commissioned a life-sized, full-color, creepily accurate statue of the disgraced former prez. This time, we're treated to a piece of bubblegum that looks like Nixon's head, and while it lacks the spectacle of the full-sized statue, it makes up for it in sheer, concentrated weirdness. Vallance even offers up some of Blinky's exhumed bones, the first public display ever of the Friendly Hen's earthly remains.

Vallance's entire career seems to be based on the phrase “Wouldn't it be neat if . . . ?” That why-not spirit led to his first show, “Wall Socket Plate Installation,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: In 1977, Vallance walked into the museum in broad daylight and installed frames on the wall sockets that featured his own crude but charming doodles. Nobody stopped him or even questioned him. If you tried that, you'd end up in jail for 40 years. But God clearly adores Jeffrey Vallance, who never faced any consequences for his heinous art crime and walked away with (yet another) great story to tell and the right to honestly claim his work had hung at LACMA. Nowadays, Vallance hardly needs to sneak his art into museums, but he is as mischievous as ever and we wouldn't be a bit surprised if the stuff that makes it into his shows is but a fraction of the strangeness he gets up to any given day.

If Jeffrey Vallance ever invites you into his basement for dinner and a tour, say yes.


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