Crowds Flock to see Blinky the Friendly Hen: 40th Anniversary Exhibition
California State University Northridge, Art Gallery
Written by Genie Davis
Just closed at California State University Northridge Art Gallery, the 40th anniversary exhibition of Blinky the Friendly Hen is a tour de force. The exhibition is all of these things: performance art, gallery show, and homage to both Blinky herself and Blinky’s immortalizer, artist Jeffrey Vallance.
The galleries feature a Relic Chamber devoted to the hen, a “theater,” showing videos about Blinky, including a punk music video and clips from David Letterman’s Late Night discussing her; book editions, chapel, a stained-glass depiction of the hen, and even a fun, souvenir-filled gift shop. Blinky deserves the tribute: Vallance has honored the once-feathered friend for 40 years.
Along with Vallance’s work, the gallery is exhibiting a collection of works devoted to Blinky’s legacy by an international group of artists, as well as works by CSUN faculty, staff, and students.
To say it’s an immersive exhibition is one way to look at it, but it is above all else a tribute: to the hen, yes, but also to the power of art to keep ideas, emotions, and a subject alive. Yes, even if the subject is a dead chicken.
But none of this would exist, had Vallance not purchased a whole chicken at a Ralph’s grocery store in 1978 – and then buried it in the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, in a ceremony replete with a funeral service and granite gravestone. He’s kept the Blinky story going. First, with a ten-year anniversary exhumation conducted by a team comprised of a lawyer, scientist, and doctor. A 30-year anniversary held at Track 16 Gallery included a chapel/reliquary; and now, marking the 40th anniversary, is the most extensive tribute to Blinky yet, this university gallery show. It is a tribute to Vallance, a CSUN alumni, almost as much as it is a tribute to Blinky.
Who would have thought what originally the artist viewed as an ironic statement – occasionally referred to as a prank by the artist, but often described in more serious terms – would evolve into an art-world phenomenon, one that is hilarious, ironic, and reverential all at once.
Blinky is, after all, one of us. Just an ordinary being, caught up in the machine of consumption, but worthy of reverence nonetheless, perhaps, for the simple act of having lived and died for us.
There is far more than just a hint of religious iconography attached to Blinky.
The bird has, in fact, achieved a resurrection of sorts, as an art world avatar. Vallance has said that he realized Blinky became a “stand-in for us,” sacrificial, and an urban legend of sorts to boot. She’s been noted on network television shows, including The Simpsons. She was buried in a satin-lined coffin.
Blinky is not only emblematic of Biblical themes, she is also a representative of all other chickens killed for consumption; her death could be viewed as an aching sadness of loss, of wonton killing in the name of sustenance, of a disregard for the preciousness of life itself. Vallance has said that he’s also wondered why some animals are pets, and some are viewed as merely food for humans.
However one views the meaning behind Blinky, she took Vallance – and his viewers – into a realm of life, death, and spiritual elevation. Life is fragile, the soul struggles on, we hope to be remembered.
We might hope to be remembered as well as Blinky.
In the gallery exhibition, the Relic Chamber/cathedral space includes individual niches that display work reverential to Blinky. There’s a chicken bone within an elaborate gold frame, a wooden platter studded with small golden Milagros of chickens. Outside of this space are collages, sculptures, paintings, and drawings all related to Blinky and created by Vallance. In another gallery, viewers can study items that are devoted to chickens in general, including a variety of elaborately decorated eggs.
Works by other artists are also exhibited, and include Samantha Field’s somewhat whimsical depiction of the sky falling, a la Chicken Little, Marnie Weber’s chicken-headed sculpture popping out of a pot, Victoria Reynolds oil painting of “Blinky Palermo,” and a chicken foot with acrylic nails from Kari Reardon.
Over the course of the exhibition, there was even a graveside performance at the LA Pet Cemetery, with a reception afterwards at CSUN’s gallery.
The fact that Blinky took on a life of her own, a playful yet poignant and resonant mythology is huge, both as an artistic statement, and as a truly fascinating look at the ways in which an artistic adventure became an evolving, growing cultural creation. If Blinky herself was destined to be consumed, Vallance’s art regarding her has become far more widely tasted.
Blinky has also taken Vallance into the world of other animals, as witnessed in a concurrent exhibition at Edward Cella Art + Architecture. In Jeffrey Vallance: Other Animals he depicts a wide range of animals in deceptively simple but meticulously crafted drawings created over the past 40 years. The works honor them while entertaining the viewer with a wide range of representations that create an exciting, involving animal mythology – of which Blinky herself is the queen.
And that’s something for the art world, art lovers, and animal lovers alike to cluck about.