Brendan deVallance

at Randolph Street Gallery

October 4-6

“Inside every cardboard box is a toaster waiting to be found,” philosophizes Brendan deVallance in the middle of his new performance piece, My Eyes Were Filled With Voluntears. This curiously engaging untruth, flatly stated and left unexplained amid many similarly curious observations, neatly encapsulates the worldview behind deVallance’s piece. He gives us a way to see the magic lying dormant in the junk that ordinarily weighs down our lives.

First, it’s important to know that cardboard is deVallance’s “favorite color,” a fact he’s told us earlier. So to him, a cardboard box needs no decoration; it is already beautiful. Second, a toaster is not just a clunky appliance that rarely works as expected. To deVallance, a toaster is a magical object of transformation, one that may even save the world. He hints at this, in his typically blunt and hyperliteral way, by cutting two slices off a globe of the earth–an earth populated by despair and longing, as he assumes throughout the evening–and putting them into his own, handmade cardboard toaster. After inserting the slices and pushing the toaster’s lever down, he looks at his watch and asks, “How long does good toast take these days?”

For deVallance to say that inside every cardboard box is a toaster is rather like an art-history professor saying that inside every piece of marble is a beautiful sculpture waiting to emerge. But anyone can see the beauty in marble. It takes an artist of deVallance’s sensitivity to see and appreciate the beauty of cardboard, and to imagine a toaster as a thing of great mystery and power. Because deVallance is so utterly candid and sincere in his performance, that toaster becomes equally magical to the audience. Indeed, deVallance’s cardboard toaster is startlingly beautiful in its clean construction. It has no clutter of dials and buttons, no brand name stenciled across its smooth, unbroken surface. It is simply the Form of toaster.

DeVallance is an artist who finds toasters in all kinds of cardboard boxes, and is able for the most part to communicate his revelations to his audience. For much of My Eyes Were Filled With Voluntears, deVallance simply manipulates a series of carefully prepared objects. From his briefcase-phonograph (which allows him to listen to his old 45s on the el) to his chalkboard-hat (upon which he can draw his ideas) to his guitar-mask (which allows him to play a song on his own face), deVallance’s curious, ingeniously coupled objects give these easily overlooked items unexpected grace and metaphorical power.

It is in a sense a childlike world, where meanings have not been fixed and functions have not been assigned. Why not strap a guitar to your face? It makes a handsome mask and lets you really hear what you’re playing. At its best, Voluntears has a giddiness that refreshes and invigorates the imagination. Unthought-of possibilities become surreal realities onstage, while deVallance proceeds as if all his fanciful creations were everyday fare.

DeVallance would probably deny that anything profound is happening in his work. In fact, the performer we see is continually humbled by the shortcomings of his own piece. He begins the evening by saying, “Hi. I’m Brendan deVallance. And what I’m about to do doesn’t quite work.” Since he has little money to work with, he tells us, he can never get exactly the equipment that he wants and has to make do with shoddy imitations. For example, instead of having a real dog onstage, he has a videotape of a dog barking. So when he takes the dog for a walk, he attaches a leash to the video monitor (actually just an old television on a skateboard) and rolls the monitor across a tabletop.

Of course, deVallance’s “shortcomings” are intentional. He has exactly the right equipment for his piece, and paradoxically it is precisely his use of low-budget substitutions that gives his piece weight. DeVallance generally does not try to be “meaningful” or “profound,” which might have alienated his audience. Instead, he constantly reminds us that his piece is nothing more than an unrehearsed jumble. By approaching his material with a self-deprecating sense of humor, deVallance allows his audience to discover meanings delightfully and unexpectedly on their own.

The unrehearsed quality of Voluntears, though it gives the piece a spontaneity deVallance generally handles with skill, also tends to impede its momentum. Voluntears is structured anecdotally, as a series of seemingly interchangeable sections. When a section works, it’s delightful. When it does not, or when it becomes too self-consciously meaningful, it does more to confuse than enlighten. This is particularly the case during many of the “lyrical” sections that deVallance and a Narrator (Lea Atiq) share. These sections, read from sheets of paper, are made up of a series of unrelated one-sentence thoughts. While the images and ideas expressed in these sections are often engaging and amusing–“Give a dog a bone, but with feeling. That’s all this life asks”–they don’t follow any particular path, and eventually become overwhelming in their density. And since these lyrical sections become more prevalent toward the end of the piece, the job of keeping up becomes more and more difficult.

The energy of the piece is also diffused by the Narrator, whose function remains ambiguous. While Atiq had full command of her performance, reading intermittently with great care and deliberation, her presence seems more an interruption to the flow of the piece than something essential to the exploration of deVallance’s texts. DeVallance also employs a three-piece band (Brian Harlan, Dave Mink, and Jon Scanlan) as accompaniment, muddying an already confusing landscape. Their music seems pointedly self-conscious–eschewing things like melody and chord progression–which makes the accompaniment “arty” in a piece decidedly not so.

The one element that remains captivating from start to finish is deVallance himself. DeVallance’s presence as a performer is remarkably strong, and has gotten stronger over the last few years. At his best he combines a charming natural awkwardness and self-consciousness with the split-second timing of a highly trained actor. While this piece suffers from unnecessary clutter at times, it contains some of deVallance’s most intelligent and insightful work to date.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jenny Knowlton.