On a fundamental level, art is a conversation among artists. (We’re invited to eavesdrop.) That includes speaking to artists from the past.
Jeffrey Vallance put several artist-forerunners on speed-dial in 2010, engaging a group of professional spiritualists and mediums to conduct a séance and make contact.
What his forebears had to say is on view and commemorated in eight large, black-and-white digital photographs and eight “spirit objects” — small shrines, amulets, keepsakes and the like — at CB1 Gallery. They exude the same wry and revealing Pop eccentricity that has been vital in Vallance’s droll work for more than 30 years.
The artist’s correspondents are, like Cher or Elvis, instantly identifiable by one name: Leonardo, Vincent, Marcel, Salvador, Frida, Jackson and Andy. Vallance also gathered these superstars from art’s celebrity firmament into a self-portrait, where they radiate from his cranium.
That arrangement is a cross between a halo and an electrical storm, perfect consciousness made manifest. Oddly, it conjures a vision of the primal Hindu creation figure, Sheshanaga, a multi-headed serpent.
A variation on Pascal’s wager comes to mind: If you simply don’t believe in spirit communion, are you in grave danger of missing out?
Short texts accompany the pictures. Bug-eyed Dali swims in an ectoplasmic soup, his claimed reincarnation — Lady Gaga — hovering in the stew above. Leonardo's self-portrait grins amid a cascade of scientific drafting plans, secure in the knowledge that “other artists, well, they’re not as good as me.” Confirmed photographs of Van Gogh being unavailable, a movie still of Kirk Douglas acts as a substitute, lusting for eternal life.
Like Mike Kelley, who once cast himself as artist-medium-huckster in a sly series of obviously faked photographs, where cotton-ectoplasm streams from his nose, Vallance invokes the 19th century fad for spirit images. Today’s digital revolution, akin to the disorienting birth of photography 175 years ago, establishes an arena for hopeful peeling back of reality’s conventional layers. Terrifying ghosts and luminous angels are assumed to be lurking within.
Yet, as Vallance titles the exhibition, “The Medium Is the Message.” His medium, digital fabrication, allows inventive flights of ethereal fancy, witty excursions into the larger culture’s hopes and dreams.
The spirit objects are similarly makeshift. A luminous chunk of rock crystal sits atop a small plywood box, as if a crystal radio to Frida Kahlo's spirit world.
Its door is conspicuously padlocked, and a switch on the side is ready to be flipped to illuminate the quartz. To what effect? None, really: The ultimate mystery of Kahlo’s limpid inner life is safely locked inside her little fortress of solitude.
Marcel Duchamp may be the most influential artist of the last century, but Vallance tracks his impact far beyond Pop and Neo-Dada art (including his own).
Vallance stopped into the London clothing emporium Duchamp, bought a pair of handcrafted, mother-of-pearl cuff links and then set the ready-made sculptures inside a gilded reliquary made in a French Gothic style.
The transactions of commercial culture can sometimes outdo the absurdities of Dada art. Still, there’s a genuineness to Vallance’s silliness — to parodies that nonetheless ruminate on serious themes of the capacity for knowledge, human empathy and inevitable death. The artist’s grandmother was reportedly a clairvoyant, keeping this show all in the family.
CB1 Gallery, 1923 S. Santa Fe Ave., (213) 806-7889, through Sept. 5. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.cb1gallery.com