In a hushed, darkened side gallery in a university exhibition space in Orange County, a series of simple glass display cases hold an array of intricately fashioned reliquaries — ornate housings for sacred objects such as slivers off the Bodhi Tree or a bone from the big toe of Mary Magdalene. The more than four dozen works on view display the gilded ornamental woodwork and oddly architectural forms that are the hallmarks of this rarely considered art-historical side stream, and they have a glow of musty intimacy and antiquarian mystery about them.

Until you look a bit closer. Then you start to see what exactly it is that’s been enshrined here: the broken neck and cap from a bottle of Orange Crush, a Jägermeister shot glass, a Morticia Addams bubblegum card, a red carpenter’s pencil, a pair of well-used black boxer shorts, a depleted can of Paul Mitchell Extra-Body Sculpting Mousse, various bits of dry wall and stucco, and a wide assortment of mass-produced touristy knickknacks and commercial premiums. What kind of religion is this, anyway?

Welcome to the Church of Saint Jeffrey Vallance, patron of overlooked minutiae and improbable synchronicities, housed — for the next few weeks, anyway — in Santa Ana’s equally idiosyncratic Grand Central Art Center. (It was in this space that Vallance previously curated landscape-franchise king Thomas Kinkade’s first-ever museum survey, and a Bible blessed by Kinkade is included here.) Vallance, probably the most underrated figure in contemporary L.A. art, is both the subject and the purveyor of these quirky autobiographical shrines, which he’s been diligently assembling over the last several years since returning to the San Fernando Valley after a decade of peripatetic global wanderings.

{mosimage}Vallance is probably still most famous for “Blinky the Friendly Hen,” a 1978 conceptual art-school prank in which the artist purchased a Foster Farms fryer from Ralphs and gave it a proper funeral and burial at the Los Angeles Pet Cemetery in Calabasas. This elegant recontextualization spawned a torrent of work — a highly sought-after artists’ book, innumerable drawings, appearances on David Letterman, further performances (the exhumation and autopsy of Blinky’s remains), a video collaboration with the Yonemoto brothers, etc. — that remains unabated to this day. Several of the reliquaries house bone fragments and other artifacts from the Blinky saga, and one of the seminal precursors of this work was the “Shroud of Blinky” — the bloodstained absorbent paper toweling from the original supermarket packaging that sold to a collector for $1,000. Such is the power of relics!

Vallance dates his fascination with these repositories of sacred detritus back even further, though — to his Lutheran childhood in Canoga Park. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on Halloween in 1517, he effectively launched the Protestant Reformation — ending more than a millennium of monopolistic spiritual, political and economic dominance by the Roman Catholic Church with a single transgressive symbolic gesture. Central to Luther’s critique of the pope was the idolatrous (and profitable) practice of relic worship. In his catalog essay, Vallance recounts Luther’s comment that there were so many alleged nails from the Crucifixion that one could shoe every horse in Germany with them.

Vallance has been a regular contributor of top-notch fringe anthropological journalism to the L.A. Weekly as well as Artforum, Art Issues, Juxtapoz and the Fortean Times, and, as usual, the literary and narrative aspects of this exhibit are compelling, and pivotal to the experience and understanding of the work. Quite aside from his essay on the personal and historical significance of relics and reliquaries, each scrap of filigree-encased memorabilia has an attendant anecdote.

The fragmentary Orange Crush bottle, for example, bears witness to a childhood trauma. “One night during the summer of 1966,” reads the accompanying text, “our family went to the Canoga Park Drive-in Theater to watch Fantastic Voyage. My stepfather brought along bottles of Orange Crush soda. He did not explain why, but instead of a bottle opener he had brought along a pair of pliers to open the bottles. At a certain point during the movie, he said that he would open everyone’s bottles with the pliers. But for some reason, I didn’t want my drink just yet.

“Later, when I got thirsty, my stepfather refused to open the Orange Crush for me. Instead he handed me the bottle and the pliers. I tried in vain to open the bottle — after about 15 minutes I managed only to shake it up, real good. At last, in one violent cataclysm, the bottleneck exploded, sending sharp shards of glass and sticky orange soda pop all over the seats, the ceiling, the windows and the rest of the family. Boy, was I in trouble now! And still thirsty.”

Other memorials commemorate the artist’s very early piece of complex political intervention, when he painted the shells of backyard snails with crude American flags in order to thwart his patriotic stepfather’s gastropodicidal wrath; a fatal automobile accident involving Vallance and his friends on their way to the never-realized follow-up performance to “Blinky”; his mysterious lifelong obsession with Richard Nixon; his official L.A. Cultural Ambassadorship to present oversize diving flippers to the 462-pound king of Tonga; and his various professional stints in Las Vegas (where I participated in several of his museological-intervention group shows), Tasmania, the arctic Swedish city of Umea, the Vatican, and the Majestic Ranch in Bourne, Texas.

The Paul Mitchell Extra-Body Sculpting Mousse was used to plaster his (and painter/spouse Vicky Reynolds’) shoulder-length hair in place on their 2002 journey of prodigal return to L.A. from Texas across 117-degree desert highway without air conditioning. Landing back in the Valley and surveying a lifetime of accumulated bric-a-brac freshly liberated from storage lockers, Vallance hit upon the idea of the reliquaries as a medium to communicate the meaning with which he felt these leftover trinkets to be imbued. While artists, by definition, tend toward narcissism, Vallance’s quirky, candid, self-deprecating humor and unfailing irony diffuse the hubris to the point where the reliquaries can be read as an encyclopedic parody of artists’ (and our entire culture’s) materialist self-absorption.

But there’s another side to it: At its most basic, art making can be said to be the act of “making special” — as true for the 70,000-year-old geometric abstractions found painted on stones in the Blombos Cave in South Africa as it is for Duchamp’s ready-made urinal sculpture, Fountain. Vallance’s work has always been about ignoring, blurring or erasing boundaries — political, social, philosophical, aesthetic, whatever. In devoting so much time, attention and work to the threshold between the quotidian and the sacred — and how the bits and pieces of everyday life can suddenly cross over to become precious works of art — Vallance has compiled a comprehensive object lesson on the forgotten transformational power of the creative act — for which the art world (and our entire culture) is so plaintively jonesing. It’s something worth remembering — maybe even worshipping a bit.

JEFFREY VALLANCE: Relics and Reliquaries | Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, Project Room Gallery, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana | (714) 567-7233 or | Through July 22

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