by Lita Barrie
Jeffrey Vallance has loved pranks since he was at high school but it did not occur to him that they could be called “performance art” until he went to art school. Vallance is so guileless he did not understand why he was called a “prankster” at first because he was making a social point. Since then he has continued to do what came naturally to him: blurring the lines between art and life because it has never occurred to him that they could be separate. Vallance is known as a pioneer of Infiltration Art (a form of Intervention Art) because he interacts with religious and political institutions and foreign dignitaries: traveling throughout Polynesia in search of the origin of the myth of Tiki and meeting with the king of Tonga and the queen and president of Palau; studying Christian relics and meeting Pope John Paul 11 at the Vatican; creating a Richard Nixon Museum; initiating a campaign “Preserving America’s Cultural Heritage” and creating a shamanic magic drum in Lapland. These art performances led to whacky sculptures, phantasmagoric paintings, collages, bricolages and frenzied drawings that draw as much on folk art and pop culture as avant-garde concepts.
Vallance immediately captured the hearts of the world at large in the 1980s and his iconic artwork not only made its way into art museums but also into popular culture. Vallance bypasses high-mindedness by following his irrepressible curiosity about questions arising from his anthropological research and close observations of his own Hollywood neighborhood leading to a cross-pollination of many disciplines.
Vallance is most renowned for the creation of Blinky the Friendly Hen, which began from his childhood interest in visiting pet cemeteries which led him to question why some animals are loved as pets with names, while others are eaten as meat with no thought of the unnamed dead animal. To explore this question further he bought a frozen Foster Farms chicken from Ralphs and took it to a meeting with pet cemetery staff to inquire about a funeral. The only question was the cause of death. This early prank developed into an art performance in 1978 when Blinky was bestowed with funerary rites then laid to rest in a small satin-lined coffin and interred at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park with a granite headstone. Blinky became a legend which led to Vallance’s appearance on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman in 1983 discussing Blinky’s burial. That year he was also the host of MTV’s The Cutting Edge which featured his artwork. In 1984 he appeared on The Regis Philbin Show to teach Philbin how to make art. Vallance was also commissioned to create album-covers for several early-‘80s punk bands, including Monitor.
Ten years later Vallance made a video piece with Bruce and Norman Yonemoto of Blinky going to heaven. He hired a lawyer, doctor and scientist to have Blinky exhumed legally to answer the question about the cause of death. Since then Vallance has made Blinky exhibitions every ten years with paintings, drawings and sculptures combining found objects and memorabilia — altarpieces, saintly reliquaries, pilgrimage mementos and manger ornaments — meticulously augmented by hand to reference the ancient significance of chickens in religions ranging from Christianity to Islam in a witty spoof on the crass commodification of spiritual kitsch.
Last year, Blinky The Friendly Hen: 40th Anniversary Exhibition at Cal State Northridge Art Gallery and most recently Jeffrey Vallance: La Chapelle de Poulet at Edward Cella Art & Architecture, which included a souvenir stand and incorporated early work with more recent explorations of the ongoing saga of Blinky. These exhibitions attracted hoards of fans in a celebration of Blinky’s lasting power. Vallance continues to captivate public imagination because his artwork is inseparable from his life which makes his fun creating it, all the more infectious.
Vallance received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation award for installation art in 2004. He has taught at UCLA; Otis College of Art and Design and Cal Arts where he teaches Infiltration Art from his own practice. Vallance has published ten books: Blinky the Friendly Hen; The World of Jeffrey Vallance; Collected Writings 1978-1994; Christian Dinosaur: Art on the rocks; Preserving America’s Cultural Heritage; Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth ; My Life with Dick, Relics and Reliquaries; The Vallance Bible; and Rudis Tractus.
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LITA BARRIE: What is the backstory behind Blinky?
JEFFREY VALLANCE: It began when I was a kid and used to go to the L.A Pet Cemetery. Looking at all the head stories, mostly about cats and dogs — although there was a lion and a few horses and parakeets — I started thinking about how this society labels pets, and we never eat those, and the others that are not labelled as pets we would eat. I wanted to reverse this. Could a piece of meat be a pet? So I took it to a pet cemetery to see if they would accept it as a pet. While in the ritual viewing room for a piece of meat, the pet cemetery only asked one question: how did your pet die? I did not know what to say except “one day she died.”
BARRIE: When did you decide to turn this experience into performance art and then make sculptures, collages and paintings about it?
VALLANCE: As a kid I did a lot of pranks but I didn’t know they could be art. Later at CSUN art school in 1978 I realized they were more like performance art than a prank if I made black and white photos. Ten years later with Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, I made a Blinky video. I thought I would do a new piece, so in 1988 I hired a lawyer, a doctor and a scientist. I had Blinky exhumed legally so I could answer the question of the cause of death. I’m not comfortable with the word “prankster” but others used it when I was at high school. I was making a social point or meaning with intentions.
BARRIE: Why did you later go on to research the religious symbolism of a chicken in Christianity and Islam?
VALLANCE: It later occurred to me that Blinky is similar to Christ. Both were sacrificed and exhumed. That was not the original intent. So I researched the Bible first and found a page where Christ compares himself to a chicken embracing people like a mother embraces her chicks. I read about other religious and found every major religion had a sacred chicken or rooster . Mohammed saw a vision of a giant rooster in heaven.
BARRIE: Over the last forty years you have continued to make new artwork about Blinky. How has her meaning changed for you?
VALLANCE: I’ve probably done 100 series, but Blinky keeps cropping up in drawings and paintings. Every ten years I have a Blinky exhibition. This last one at Edward Cella in 2019 of work made in 2018 was the fortieth anniversary of the first book and Foster Farms chicken in a bag.
BARRIE: Why did Blinky capture popular imagination?
VALLANCE: There are a few reasons. The original story was published in a book with all the photographs of the burial and buying the Foster Farms chicken at Ralphs, so that helped to get it into public imagination. Besides that, people see it as an archetype and can relate to it. Humor is important. It took off and ended in strange places.
BARRIE: Well I relate to Blinky because years before I saw your artwork, I had a horrible experience of buying a fresh chicken at a Chinese food market in Alhambra without realizing it still had a head. My kitten loved to eat roast chicken and she was rubbing against my leg, purring in expectation of sharing home cooking when I was unwrapping it and realized that I needed to cut off the chicken’s head myself. That was when I understood that we make an absurd distinction between pets and the animals we eat, and even the animals we feed to our pets. I could not eat the roast chicken after that and even watching my cat devouring it was creepy.
VALLANCE: The animals we eat have their heads, feet and feathers taken off. Anything that makes them look like an animal is gone so they are no longer a creature and look like a thing. Farmers say never name an animal you are going to eat because then it is a pet and not meat. So the first thing was I named the hen Blinky.
BARRIE: Your exhibition at Edward Cella is almost a retrospective of a forty year ongoing exploration of the wide ranging significance of Blinky.
VALLANCE: The drawings, sculptures, installations of Blinky in my last exhibition are mostly new, but a few come from the 1980s because Blinky is a continuing process. The meaning of Blinky changes for me, and every few years I see her in a different way. After an Eastern religious statement I saw Blinky more as a martyr. Then I had the idea that our sexuality is related to chicken because the name for a rooster is “cock,” and some people call female genitals “chicken.” In the last show, Blinky is in heaven, which comes from an Islamic chicken in heaven. I also document how important Easter eggs and Easter chicken is to Christianity. I see heaven as a giant warm and fuzzy chicken that embraces everyone like a mother chicken sitting on her baby chicks, hiding them and keeping them warm.
BARRIE: You include work from your travels to Polynesia, Italy and even Iceland. Why do you like to stage performances in these far off countries?
VALLANCE: Yes, I’ve met royalty in Tonga and high chiefs in different islands in Micronesia and Palau. I bring them gifts and interact with them. I was bought up in SoCal as a kid in the sixties with parents who were into Polynesian Pop, when people decorated their homes with Tiki culture. After grad school I wanted to know why we loved Polynesian decorations, so I travelled through Polynesia doing drawings and research. In 1986 I made a performance piece about meeting the King of Tonga with black and white photographs. Sculptures, paintings and drawings came from that meeting in a throne room decorated with royal objects, which I exhibited at Rosamund Felsen Gallery.
BARRIE: Did publishing ten books and contributing articles to art magazines like Artforum and Art Issues help make Blinky famous?
VALLANCE: Yes. I do a lot of research with all my projects, so I write texts which often get published somewhere. With the Blinky project it worked because far more people read about it.
BARRIE: What made you start doing the ambidextrous drawing you exhibited at Edward Cella in 2017?
VALLANCE: I’ve always done drawing, but the automatic drawing started in 2016 because I didn’t want to draw on white paper and wanted the background to be active. I scribbled a background and it got so intense that I saw my left hand moving too so I put another pencil in that hand so I could draw with both hands. Then my feet started moving, so although I didn’t plan it I was doing automatic writing. The scribbling and drawing then took a look of almost text like calligraphy. I have channelled a spirit in other work and I tapped into something strange, which was unplanned in that body movement. My work is usually planned, but the most fun part is when something I don’t expect happens which leads to the next project.
BARRIE: Why do you paint in so many different styles?
VALLANCE: The range of styles represent different phases when I learned art. My grandfather was a folk artist from Norway, so my early things had a primitive folk look. I learned to be realistic in high school and later took anatomy classes, drawing classes and studied scientific books. I go back to these styles in a rough primitive way. I have leitmotifs and recurring themes so my work has a signature in the name and concept but not the look of it.
BARRIE: Is your life experience an integral part of your artwork?
VALLANCE: My art and life are not separate. Most of my time my experience traveling and reading become my whole life. My teaching is also integrated because I am just myself and teach things I’ve done.
BARRIE: How does your work reflect Los Angeles?
VALLANCE: Growing up in SoCal my main motif is Hollywood. It encompasses everything: different styles of western and detective movies. The architecture also reflects that because everything is fake and it is all a set. When I was a kid in East West Valley, I found abundant movie sets like old western towns and torn down second World War sets by accident. So watching westerns I feel at home.
BARRIE: Does the phantasmagoric quality of your work come from that childhood experience?
VALLANCE: Yes, because everything is hyped at once. I still feel it when I go on hikes because the Hollywood sets were real once they became movie sets with bits that were still real. Hollywood builds on top of real wells, trails, native villages and caves with paintings and petroglyphs which are in museums. Time is all flat and pancaked on top of each other as a time legend. A lot of this is in the Blinky video I did with Bruce Nauman, which is collaged when she goes to heaven.
BARRIE: Why do you use commercial logos in beautifully painted landscapes, which are so crass they are jarring?
VALLANCE: Because that is my daily experience seeing this. I don’t want art to be perfect. I want the reality of SoCal signs everywhere. A lot of old still-life paintings of beautiful fruit will have one thing wrong, like a fly or one decaying piece of fruit. Life isn’t perfect. I picked up on this immediately — that those painters wanted one thing that is wrong. That is where I got the idea of having one thing that is off and I ran with the idea that life is never perfect. Art can be too perfect and then it looks like illustration. An artist goes with a mistake which has a fascinating feel to it, whereas an illustrator erases it.
Jeffrey Vallance on David Letterman, Pt 1
BARRIE: Why has Blinky morphed into so many things in pop culture since your interview with David Letterman made your work famous outside the art world?
VALLANCE: Yes, punk rock groups did songs abut Blinky. A radical animal rights group called Direct Action turned it into an animal rights symbol referencing my performances with a big chicken in a coffin and do chants. There are cartoons about a chicken in a coffin. Blinky is an archetype herself because she is out there and people do things with a chicken in a coffin not realizing the source. I just put the idea out there and it keeps getting a larger audience. I like that but some higher art people think an artist is only supposed to talk in code to art people. I like it when it interacts and morphs into different things because it hit a chord. Two pieces in my show of chickens hanging in S&M chains refer to S&M art by friends. I like the interconnectedness of martyrdom, sadism and masochism because the crucifixion comes from Rome where early christians who were tortured became saints and the torturing tools became relics.
Jeffrey Vallance on David Letterman, Pt 2
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie’s writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles, including Hyperallergic, HuffPost, art ltd, Artweek, and Art New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read more of her work, visit www.litabarrie.com