Smoke and Mirrors – Per omnia saecula saeculorum

Smoke and Mirrors – Per omnia saecula saeculorum

Ghost Writers – August 8, 2015 performance in conjunction with The Medium Is the Message, through September 5, 2015, CB1 Gallery, Los Angeles

Jeffrey Vallance’s séance/performance, Ghost Writers – a collaboration with the self-titled psychic astrologer, Joseph Ross, held in conjunction with Vallance’s show at CB1 Gallery, The Medium Is the Message – was ostensibly intended to draw out the spirits (and opinions) of art critics past (Vallance has not lacked for critical commentary in the local or contemporary art press), to sound off against Vallance’s photo-montaged artist-icons displayed on the surrounding gallery walls – themselves previously channeled by psychics in Vallance-led performances (e.g., at the last Frieze Fair). But the actual effect was more of an invocation directed at his entire audience of culture consumers.  

The spirit of the invocation derived more from the 19th century than the 20th or 21st. Mr. Ross has appeared in varying costume for his séances, but on this particular evening, he seemed to be playing a mid-20th century version of the dandy, albeit one conceived in 19th century spirit, attired head to toe in lavender – lavender suit, lavender-banded fedora, and white and lavender spectator shoes. An electric candelabra flickered at his feet as Vallance tried to massage a few channeled spirits from his medium. They came almost too easily and perhaps predictably – two dandies of 19th century criticism (and art). “Hello, I’m Oscar Wilde…. Does anybody know who I am?” Naturally, he immediately made reference to Wilde’s famous essay, “The Critic As Artist,” written in the form of a quasi-Platonic dialogue (that would have made Plato howl – probably with fury, but not without laughter). I didn’t recognize any direct quotes from the essay, and he may have even contradicted a few of Wilde’s actual points, but he caught the spirit of the thing, which attempts to dissolve the distinctions between art-making and its criticism. Wilde was making a larger point in “The Critic,” but the subsidiary point of artistic choice and selection as functions of critical thinking applied. He segued from Wilde to Baudelaire, whose spirit has abided close to the art world since he first took it on in the mid-19th century – the ambiguous divide between the sacred and profane, innocence and corruption, the perfume of decay, the respiration of civilization’s rise and fall – yeah, we get it….  

I had the sense that Vallance was trying to draw out a few more spirits, critical or otherwise, from Ross; but he gave his ‘medium’ a pretty free rein. As promised, Vallance eventually urged Ross toward the photographic portraits hanging on the gallery walls, beginning – an appropriate segue from Wilde – with Salvador Dali. “This is not a bad likeness….” Indeed it wasn’t. I wasn’t sure of the photographic sources (the Dali portrait looked vaguely like one of Halsman’s), but with the possible exception of the Warhol, Vallance’s choices were fantastic. (And of course Warhol’s best portraits were his own.) “The face looks like me.” Then, comparing himself to his peers in the gallery – “None of them changed the world. I did. I’ve recreated the planet…. Now I’m redesigning the universe.” (That would be a stretch, even for Wilde.) Then Ross spoke in his own voice, coming back to himself, and the tune changed. “It’s [Dali’s work] great art, but outmoded and behind the times. He was not a good surrealist. He was a royalist.” (Were the two qualities incompatible?) “I am Joseph, so there is an overlap,” he explained to the audience who might have missed the transition.

“I’m a little afraid,…” Jeffrey began, leading Ross to his next subject, Vincent van Gogh.   This was a good likeness, too – under the haze of what looked like a lap dissolve – of Kirk Douglas, playing van Gogh in the 1956 M-G-M film, Lust for Life. Vallance tried to coax the spirit out with the pinprick of the present. “No one would buy your work [when you were alive]…. How do you feel now that the same [sort of] people are buying all your work …?”

“Well at least they didn’t crucify me,” was van Gogh’s Ross-mediated reply.

Somewhere between Warhol and Duchamp, Vallance tried to pull another critic out of Ross – less famous, but one of the first to recognize and write about him. This was the Los Angeles TimesWilliam Wilson. Ross couldn’t really put a bead on Wilson, but was game enough to offer, “My mind is here, but not my body.” And more tenderly, “I love you Jeffrey.”

“Not that I’m trying to get press at my own show….” Vallance retreated a bit.

In Warhol’s voice (seemingly), Ross was confessional. “I love everybody and everything…. I always thought I was a charlatan. Yet you all loved me.” Then he somehow free-rationalized his way to, “ … because all you artists are parasites….” Likeness aside (Andy looks like a French philosophy professor), the Warhol portrait is a hoot, with Valerie Solanis buried so deeply amid the dark photographic layers that I thought for a moment she was actually the Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker. In the smoke swirling around his wig, a smaller photo-composite is set into a cloud with one of Warhol’s Eve Arden-esque ‘Marilyn’ drag photos teasing us with the Avedon reveal of his post-assassination scarring. Smoke swirls everywhere in these portraits, including (naturally) the portraits of Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollack – perhaps drawing out Ross’s own moodiness. “I was a handsome man,” he said, in ‘Duchamp’s’ voice. “I was an intellectual, more than an artist.” ‘Truth’ to one side, that didn’t sound right at all; and by this time, the ‘voicing’ became a bit loose, even unhinged; and possibly verging on anger (which I think must have delighted Vallance). “Anyone in the art world besides the artist is an imposter.” (Can’t argue with that….) “The critics are the insane ones.” Hmmm…. At one point, there was a real break where Ross suddenly began to speak in the excoriating ‘critical’ voice of the late Senator Jesse Helms.

In a second gallery, Vallance showed objects associated with the artists – products of his own personal association with the artists – if not their actual artistic ‘spirits,’ then the spirits and associations channeled through their self-annointed surrogates (e.g., at Frieze – a video of which was also exhibited here). Some of these were simply fantastic. Vallance has always had a fascination for the paraphernalia of religious liturgy, the sacral and sacerdotal; also for the cultural critique viewed through an archaeological lens: the way we die; the way we lived; and what we leave behind; how cultural symbols and symptoms are reduced to a systematized symbolism and symptomatology. (And I’m getting way too sibilant here….) The best one here was the least sacerdotal: a beer jug stamped “One Trick Pony,” with a small engraving rolled up and extending out of the neck – riffing off the line attributed to Leonardo that was paraphrased along the lines, “I’m the only real artist here; the rest of you [my artistic peers] are just one-trick ponies.” It looked primed for its next ‘incarnation’ as a Molotov cocktail.

Art becomes self-consciously critical and somewhat reflexive as early as the late Renaissance; but there’s no denying that the self-critical aspect becomes increasingly pronounced since Romanticism (and Baudelaire) – with the sharpest break coming after World War I in Dada and Surrealism. We’re seeing another break now in the transition between Conceptualism and post-Conceptual art, where culture seems to be not merely criticizing, but consuming itself. Glancing at the rapt, respectful audience at Saturday’s tour via séance, I felt enclosed in a sarcophagus, insulated yet awaiting immolation as the culture of smoke and mirrors crashed around us – and not sure if this was the way I wanted to go. Better to throw that first Molotov cocktail.