We were well into our telephone interview before I noticed that Jeffrey Vallance had been answering all of my questions with disarming directness. The peripatetic artist, who was born in Torrance, California and currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, willingly responded to every query as if none was more or less important than any other. A similar sense of democratic openness guides Vallance’s globe-spanning projects, including: the pet-cemetery burial (and exhumation) of a chicken bought in a San Fernando Valley supermarket’s frozen food section; a gift of super-extra-large swim fins personally delivered to his majesty Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, King of Tonga; temporary membership in a Samoan village’s ad hoc police force; a meeting with the first woman elected to lead a modern democracy, Iceland’s President, Vigdis Finnbogadóttir; and the thorough, if quirky, research into (and re-creation of) the Veil of Veronica and the Lance of Longinus, as well as art exhibitions presented in such Las Vegas showcases as the Liberace Museum, the Debbie Reynolds Museum, Ron Lee’s World of Clowns, and The Magic and Movie Hall of Fame. All of Vallance’s seriously playful projects begin by eliminating the boredom that often plagues everyday banality, without getting rid of this realm’s easy-accessibility. With a radically democratic inclusiveness that rivals Emerson’s and Whitman’s celebrations of repeatable, plebian thrills, Vallance consistently proposes that the ordinary world is more meaningful and wondrous than we usually acknowledge—or imagine. His art redeems mundane experience from its dreary repetitiveness by finding, in quotidian commonality, extraordinary potential for mind-boggling fascination.
David Pagel You just got back from Sweden?
Jeffrey Vallance Yeah, I was at Umeå University, up near the Arctic Circle, working on a show in a nautical museum which had this huge steel ship inside of one of the buildings…
DP The nautical museum doesn’t usually organize contemporary art shows.
JV Right, the nautical museum has their display and it never changes.
DP It displays boats, fish hooks, and the like?
JV Exactly. The people at the museum gave us this room and the only thing that we couldn’t do was harm the boat. We couldn’t drill holes in it or paint it or anything. But we could put art in it and around it. I brought work from Las Vegas that was typical of the Vegas look…lots of glamour and glitter, dealing with Vegas images. I felt the work would look even better in a nautical museum, totally out of context. Finally, there was so much stuff on the boat that you could hardly recognize it as a boat.
DP I’m picturing something like an overloaded Christmas tree.
JV You got it.
DP Umeå University isn’t exactly at the center of the art world. Are they open minded and curious and hardworking and unimpeded by the snobbery of the art world?
JV Yeah, they can do that because they are so isolated. It’s a little bit like Vegas, isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.
DP How did you end up living in Las Vegas?
JV I left L.A. in ‘92 and was on the road for a couple of years. Every once in a while I’d swing through Vegas, basically to visit Dave Hickey and to see all the new casinos. I did a lecture in ‘94 and then came back as an artist-in-residence at UNLV in ’95. I stayed on because I started curating these shows in Vegas museums: the Liberace Museum, Ron Lee’s World of Clowns, and the Debbie Reynolds Museum.
DP Which was a little different from the work you had been making.
JV There is one idea that goes throughout all my work, which is “infiltration.” Everything I work with, like the Shroud of Turin or the Nixon Museum, is infiltration. In the shows that I did in Vegas, you weren’t sure exactly what was the art and what was the existing museum. You’d go in and say, “What is real and what is the art?” The spaces were never meant to have an art exhibit; they have absolutely no space for art, no wall space, they’re already packed with too much information.
DP Like artifacts.
JV Yeah. Like in the Liberace Museum, his cars, all of his costumes, his pianos, everything anyone ever gave him. But I also noticed that they have a few things that look like fan art, lame paintings that people have done along the way. That gave me the idea for the show.
DP You did something similar when you sent art to the Vatican.
JV That was different. That was when I was trying to make sacred art. That was the basis of several years of work. I was reading Vatican documents, and learned that they have strict rules on what you have to do to make sacred art. So instead of following the rules of the art world, I tried to follow the rules of the Vatican in making this art.
DP Did the Vatican’s rules prove to be as difficult as the art world’s rules?
JV No, I don’t think so. I actually succeeded in making sacred art. I made this little drawing of the Shroud of Turin, and I sent it to the pope. And several months later, I got this nice letter back saying that the pope had accepted the work. Which was really important because I had sent art to the Vatican before, and they had sent it back.
DP And said, “No thank you.”
JV This time they accepted the piece, and I got a letter from this man, Monsignor Sepe. I was in Milan doing a show at a gallery around the same time that I got this letter from the Vatican. So I made an appointment and met the Monsignor to find out exactly what had happened to the drawing. The Vatican officials told me that when the pope accepts a gift, one of two things happen. He can keep it for himself, and then it goes into a special chamber; but also, he recycles gifts. A church somewhere in the world will ask the Vatican for a holy gift from the pope and he will give these love-gifts back to the people.
DP So his collection is like a lending library from the Holy Collection of John Paul.
JV When churches get their gifts from the pope, it’s like a sacred relic. I’m not sure if my drawing is in this vault, or if it was given by the pope as a sacred gift to a church, somewhere in the world. It could end up at any location. And at that point, it would be a holy work of art because it’s coming from the Vatican, specially given by the pope. So in that sense, I attained the status of sacred art.
DP And that is what led to the idea of doing something similar in the Liberace and Debbie Reynolds Museums?
JV Well, I’ve been working on this museum idea for quite a few years.
DP Coming out of the Nixon Museum?
JV In a way, yeah. When the Nixon Museum opened I went down there right away and was very excited by the whole thing. I collected a lot of Nixon stuff as a kid. And when I went to the museum I saw that they had many of the same pieces that I had had in my collection. In the ’70s, I had also made some Nixon pieces – collages, and some really lame art, it looked very ’70s. So I made an appointment with the curator at the Nixon Museum. All I was planning to do was donate these pieces. In a way, I was just trying to get rid of them, but I also thought it would be an appropriate place.
DP Kind of a home for them.
JV Yeah, but they wouldn’t take them.
DP Did they look them over?
JV They took photographs of them, and said that they would let me know. Then they wrote and said that they didn’t want them. So it was at that point, thinking of all the Nixon things that I owned, that I decided to make my own Nixon Museum.
DP A little healthy entrepreneurial competition?
JV Yeah. My museum came about in the same year that the “real” Nixon Museum opened. So when I had this exhibition at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, there were articles in the newspaper and so forth, and for a while there was this confusion as to which was the real Nixon Museum. Some people were coming to mine thinking they were seeing the real one. I got a lot of Nixon fan mail from these die-hard Nixon freaks who wrote to the gallery.
DP Did the people who ran the Nixon Museum see your show?
JV I invited them to the opening and they came. We were all standing around, typical opening, and all of a sudden this big black Mercedes pulls up in front and out climb these guys looking like FBI, with suits and aviator sunglasses.
DP And little earphones?
JV Just about. We thought, who are they? For awhile they didn’t say anything. I saw them looking at the art work, but I thought they didn’t look like your regular art opening people. (laughter) Finally they came up to me and introduced themselves as being from the Nixon Museum. So we walked through the show and I showed them all the things. It seemed like they were in an almost jovial mood. They would make comments, like, “Oh we have this one too.”
DP They didn’t think your show was irreverent?
JV Not at that point. Or if they did they didn’t say. Later, I thought I would try to donate some other pieces to the real Museum, but whenever I send a letter to them now it just comes back. They don’t even bother to reply.
DP Return to sender. So that’s the end of your official correspondence with them.
JV I guess I got on their blacklist. I noticed, going through their museum, that a huge part of history was missing, many people’s favorite part—the whole Watergate era, with caricatures and cartoons, the little rubber Nixon heads…
DP Tricky Dicky stuff.
JV Yeah, Tricky Dicky stuff that people loved in the ’70s, and of course, they had none of that. I tried to make my museum more democratic, showing both sides. I had the official portraits, the official buttons, and then all that Watergate stuff. My museum actually represented a more accurate history by showing both sides.
DP But apparently they didn’t think so.
JV No. They’re trying to rewrite history, making him into a great president. I’m just trying to show the things that actually existed at the time. All the real artifacts.
DP But in a democratic spirit, not in a spirit of pointing fingers or thumbing your nose.
JV No, not at all. Even if I start off being opposed to whatever institution I’m infiltrating, in the end, by doing enough research and studying the subject, I find some respect for it. And I try to put that in the work. It would be too easy to point a finger at Nixon. I wanted to present something more complicated.
DP The element of infiltration goes along with the touristic side of your work.
JV Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call it tourism. I travel to do my research or to meet with the official people I need to see. That’s the only way I can really do research. One can only go so far going to the library. At a certain point I have to go to the actual locations.
DP I don’t mean to imply that what you do is like ordinary tourism. On the contrary, your work is in the spirit of finding out for yourself.
JV You can read a thousand books on something, and then you get there, and immediately you see totally different things, things people never thought to write about. I’ll go somewhere and look at some object to see what is facing it, or what’s down the street, or around it. There’s no way to know that until you get there. I always find so much more information that is exactly the thing I need. Everyone tries to give you their official story and there’s always some weird twist that they’ve left out. There’s always some embarrassing fact they didn’t want to write about.
DP And it’s almost always the case that that leads you somewhere else. Your work makes connections that initially seem to be wild leaps.
JV That’s how it works, because I’ll be researching one topic, and some other unconnected thing keeps on surfacing. And sometimes that becomes the new direction. Everything leads me to the next place. From Veronica’s Veil to the Shroud of Turin, to the Hapsburg Palace in Vienna, where I researched the Holy Lance. One of the main blood flows on the Shroud was caused by the Roman soldier’s lance. I was doing research on the blood flow, and heard the actual lance existed, so I went to Vienna to see it. There’s always a clue, always more information someplace else.
DP What about the autobiographical side of your work? Do you ever think of it as a kind of self-portraiture, particularly the jump from veil to lance, you just add those together and get Vallance…
JV It was interesting how that whole veil-lance thing happened because I didn’t see that until the very end. I was always writing these sentences, “the veil and the lance; the veil and the lance.” One day I just looked at it—and there it was—my own name was written in the objects. It was totally unintentional. The autobiographical aspect is in the fact that I actually go to these places and meet the principal people involved with these ideas. And I’ve read hundreds of books on these subjects, all from particular points of view. Mine is from another point of view, and it’s very important that I’m personally involved, that I have direct contact with the objects.
DP So, it’s autobiographical without being self expressive?
JV I rely on accident. I know that somehow in doing the research, there’s going to be this wild chance. And usually that wild accident is what catapults me into the next series, like hyperspace. One can never imagine how a thing is somehow linked to another. It’s very strange, but I count on these accidents happening.
DP But you don’t know where they’re going to happen?
JV Don’t know where, don’t know how, but they always do.
DP Do they ever feel like stories in supermarket tabloids—amazing links, but kind of suspicious?
JV Not really. The one thing about my work is that everything is true. I don’t make anything up. I like it when the link actually exists, because it puts a weird twist on everything.
DP In reading your book, The World of Jeffrey Vallance (Art Issues Press), I get the sense that for you, the world is a much more meaningful place than we usually suspect.
JV I link the mundane to the fantastic to the spiritual to the everyday. It always jumps back and forth. There’s always something that we see every day, that we never really thought of, and somehow I make it connect to something profoundly spiritual. My job is to change the way people think of things. To distort reality in some small way, just a kink or a little tweak.
DP Would you describe yourself as a myth maker?
JV Not really. I’m trying to contaminate the myths that already exist.
DP Not to get rid of them, as science would, but make them more idiosyncratic?
JV I never discount any information. Take the Shroud for example. For me the Shroud is real. I don’t want to claim that it’s fake, as most people believe. I start with the “real” premise, add my own research, and then somehow my research contaminates the nature of how people look at the Shroud.
DP It’s like picking up a thousand-year-old story and going on from there without worrying about the story’s origins?
JV I leave the original alone and add my history on the end.
DP And sometimes along the way, like with the Lance’s story, a reproduction sneaks in, and the second story actually supercedes the thing in itself.
JV That’s what I like. And about the Lance and the Veil of Veronica, there were certain points in both their histories when exact copies were made. And then a few hundred years later people became confused as to which was real and which was the copy. There are all these separate concurrent histories happening at the same time. When I went to Vienna, I merely made more exact copies to keep this process going. Maybe in five-hundred years my copies will be confused with the originals.
DP People revere things because they think that people in the past revered them. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t really matter.
JV I’m intrigued with this idea of relics and fake relics, because I see no difference among them. People are always concerned, “Is this the real bone of the saint?” It doesn’t matter. If people believe that that’s the finger of St. Thomas, then it is. It acts in the same way, even if there are 50 of them.
DP They have the same powers.
JV Yes. If there are 50 of them, then they’re all real. The Catholic church says that the relics themselves actually multiply. So you can have five skulls of St. Luke. And they’re all real. I do that in my work, multiply them, make more, and put them out in the world to circulate.
DP Didn’t people believe that if they pressed a plain fabric to the Veil of Veronica, a holy duplicate would be formed?
JV If you touched a copy to the original Veil of Veronica (if there ever was one), the sacredness would rub onto or contaminate the fake one. After awhile, the fakes were just as good as the original.
DP Does this have any connection to your interest in doing shows in non-art venues?
JV Yeah. The clown art infiltrated into the clown museum and it was unlike anything else there.
DP Because they only had costumes and wigs and things like that, and you put in paintings, sculptures and photographs?
JV Yeah, but they weren’t your official nice clown things, they were a little bit perverted. I was taking clowns to a place where the clown museum would never normally want to go. Every five minutes, busloads of tourists pulled up, they’d all get out, and were totally primed to have a clown experience. And they’d walk in and see the regular show, and then they’d see our clown art work. But it didn’t stop them for a second. They didn’t look at it and say, “Whoa. This clown is too weird…” They expected to see clowns and so every clown they saw made total sense. If you’d taken the clown show and put it in a gallery, then they might have gone in and been upset, because they wouldn’t be expecting a clown experience, they’d be expecting art. But in the clown museum it seemed perfect. As far as they knew, the paintings were always there.
DP And the people who run the clown museum invited you?
JV Yeah, I tried to keep them involved in the whole process. I wanted everyone to be happy with the show, so I walked through it with Ron Lee. Some clowns made him a little uncomfortable, but he said they were fine. I don’t want to put in something that’s so distasteful that it would be upsetting to the clown people and all the tourists.
DP You don’t want to slap them in the face.
JV No. But I want to come very close to that…
DP What are you doing in Cathedral Canyon?
JV Cathedral Canyon is an ongoing project in this hole in the middle of nowhere in the desert. The desert is totally flat, and then there’s this canyon that the folk artist, Roland Wiley, made in the ‘70s. He saw the canyon as a church, and he put stained glass windows on the side of the canyon. There are grottos where the earth eroded, like niches in a church, and he put wood carvings of little saints in them. The place is open to the public, there’s no one in charge of it, and over the years teenagers have gone and smashed all the stuff. Roland used to come back and add more, but he’s dead now. So we went down there, and it was in a sorry state. We got more statues to put in the caves. But the thing is, you never know how long they’re going to last, a few years or a few days—until some kid with a sledge hammer gets down there. It’s like a sacrifice to the desert.
DP So you’re a preserver or caretaker, whereas with the other installations you’re more of a curator.
JV It’s all the same thing. I’ve invited different artists to add pieces, but they come and go. Even if someone doesn’t smash them, the desert itself will erode them. I believe my infiltration really improves people’s experience of the place.
DP Is it a pretty well-known canyon? Do a lot of people trek out there to see it?
JV It seems to be, but I don’t know how people find out about it, because it’s not on any official pamphlet about Vegas attractions. It must be listed on some sacred sites list, because people from all over the world go there.
DP So for that piece the audience is tourists. And for the others, the Debbie Reynolds Museum and the Liberace Museum, they’re also tourists. Are you more interested in this middle class audience, rather than that of the art world?
JV Definitely. In a certain sense, art in the ‘90s has totally failed. The art world has isolated itself from big portions of the population. A lot of times when “normal people” go to a gallery, they don’t enjoy themselves. They’re actually upset by the art. They don’t get it, and they feel bad—it’s aggressive to them.
DP Or they do understand it and they hate it.
JV Yeah. What I’m doing is changing the context in which they perceive it. Because if you took my work and put it in a white cube, they might have the same reaction to it. But if you put paintings in the Liberace Museum, they just accept them as part of their experience. They love it. And they never have that upsetting art experience. It’s really important for the art world to bring in more people, and not just this isolated art crowd. That kills art.
DP Whereas appropriation takes stuff out of the world and makes it art by putting it in the white cube, you go the other way, saying, let’s see what art can produce, let’s see if it can live up to and in the real world. Almost anything looks good in a white room, but it’s a lot tougher when you’re competing with Liberace.
JV Yeah, Liberace’s giant rhinestone and million-dollar costumes. (laughter) Actually the work is seen by many more people than it would be in a gallery. You don’t have busloads of people coming to a gallery.
DP But you’re not preaching to them, or trying to convince them of anything.
JV No. We just give them the Liberace experience; but with a few subtle—or not so subtle—statements.
DP You painted a couple of portraits of Liberace?
JV I did a piece called Liberace in Full Glory, which had the young Liberace’s head floating in a vortex of glitter, in a frame with all kinds of rhinestones on it. Out of the Liberace Museum, it would be the most glaring, hideous object, but there, it almost disappears.
DP It looks kind of bland?
JV Uh huh. And I did another piece, The World’s Smallest Liberace Portrait, which was an inch wide, on this tiny little easel inside of a bell jar. There were about 30 people in the show who did all kinds of things, from sculpture to installations to paintings, and everything in between. In the museum there is a replica of Liberace’s bedroom, and an artist named Helene Pobst made giant, ornate pillows, totally gaudy with jewels and gold, and put them on Liberace’s two beds.
DP And it looked like they were always there.
JV Right. It’s funny, because after the show she took the pillows away and the people at the Museum thought she was stealing Liberace’s pillows. (laughter) It was perfect. I just love putting more objects in these historical re-creations.
DP So that’s what you like about Vegas.
JV There are lots of these spaces.
DP Graceland is another example.
JV Yeah, I have several shows planned in the future, and many more ideas. The only problem I have is that everyone so far has said yes.
DP You don’t want to start the Jeffrey Vallance corporation?
JV Well, the shows are so much work. In May, I have one opening at the Las Vegas Movie and Magic Hall of Fame.
DP Do you have any plans to show in a white cube again?
JV (laughter) Well, not scheduled. I’ve done all these pieces, Liberace, Debbie Reynolds, the clown pieces…but when I take them out of these spaces, I don’t really like how they look. They were created to go in those installations. So how can I show them in a white cube? They would just die.