There’s been plenty of hoopla about former President George W. Bush’s earnest foray into political portraits, but Jeffrey Vallance’s bright and kitschy paintings of world leaders and pop heroes are better and more interesting. Painted in Rust-Oleum and Krylon enamel, each is framed by a border of little objects and icons. Like Bush’s renderings of Vladimir Putin and Hamid Karzai, they have a naïve, outsider sensibility, a result of the viscous paint he uses, which is not meant for fine art.
Also like Bush, Vallance has had personal interactions with a few of his famous subjects, albeit at a distance. Known for his playful, dark engagement with pop culture, Vallance pioneered what he calls correspondence art. As he explained to David Letterman in a 1983 interview, “I want to get a response by writing a letter.” For his 1979 piece Cultural Ties, Vallance sent used neckties to heads of state and asked them for one in return. Samples came back from King Hussein of Jordan, Anwar Sadat, the Shah of Iran, and the presidents of El Salvador and Austria. However, the project earned Vallance an FBI file for his work with countries behind the Iron Curtain.
“Enamel Paintings: Idols & Villains,” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (catch it before it closes Saturday!), continues a series depicting television personalities that Vallance began in the 1970s and ‘80s and expanded to include a cast of notorious and benign politicians and dictators, artists and thinkers. While most subjects fall squarely into the Good or Evil camp (the Devil, for instance, in the latter), others are less clear. A cartoonish Richard Nixon, flanked by vintage campaign stickers and decals, could go either way, considering the affectionate traveling museum Vallance made for Tricky Dick.
Framed by skinny nuclear missiles and retro flowers, the late North Korean dictator smiles from the cheerful center of a sunburst pattern. Vallance heard that the Dear Leader kept gifts he was sent in a special room, known as the “Room of 1,000 Presents,” and put together a selection of American items for him, including a red, white and blue picnic set. It is unknown if his patriotic package is included in the collection of the Pyongyang museum that houses the room today.
Haloed by a solid-looking helmet of black hair, Chung is surrounded by red atomic bomb explosions, morning glory flowers, and a cup of coffee, attributes perhaps of her time on the morning news. She is flanked by two little paintings of Los Angeles City Hall, a reference to the city where Chung worked as a local news anchor and where Vallance has lived his whole life.
Falling around the stern-looking Iranian leader are pin-up girls riding bombs and tiny graffiti decals made for model train buffs to attach to freight cars for added realism. Vallance kept the decals since they were produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The politics of the time seeped into some, in phrases such as “Nuke Iran” and “A Weenie for Kohmeenie,” preserved in miniature.
Made before Kelley’s death in 2012, Vallance’s portrait of his close friend and fellow Angelino artist surrounds him with the sock puppets he famously photographed, a few cartoon kittens, and a stuffed alligator emblazoned with CalArts, his alma mater.
Vallance paints Nimoy surrounded by attributes of his real and fictional lives. Alongside the original icon of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets is a Star of David and the names of many of the arts institutions Nimoy supports philanthropically. Vallance became a fan after seeing the former actor and photographer at art events around Los Angeles, landing him in the idol camp.
Surrounded by the Tongan Coat of Arms and Royal Standard, Vallance shows King Tupou V in a frame of pandan mat, resplendent in his crown and heraldic ermine. On a quest to investigate the origins of Tiki imagery, Vallance visited Tonga and met with the King’s father, bringing gifts that included extra large swim fins for his big feet and a Tiki-style soap on a rope.