An Art Exhibit All About the San Fernando Valley. Like, Really

Mike Mandel's People in Cars, North Hollywood, 1970, is one of the pieces featured in a survey of San Fernando Valley art that captures what curator Damon Willick calls "the extraordinariness of the ordinary.”EXPAND
Mike Mandel's People in Cars, North Hollywood, 1970, is one of the pieces featured in a survey of San Fernando Valley art that captures what curator Damon Willick calls "the extraordinariness of the ordinary.”
Mike Mandel, photo courtesy of CSUN

When the first Getty-helmed Pacific Standard Time initiative unfurled across the city in 2011 touting the legacy of postwar Angeleno art, art historian Damon Willick had just one question: "Where are the Vals?"

The Loyola Marymount University art history professor was born in Panorama City and grew up in the flat, middle-class neighborhoods north of Ventura Boulevard. PST aimed to craft a grand narrative about Los Angeles cultural history, Willick says. "There was a component of heroization. I'm very uncomfortable with mythmaking and grand narratives."

What started as a private joke among Valley friends evolved into a personal quest to uncover what, if any, serious art developed in the region. Now Willick has his chance: He has curated his very own Valley Standard Time exhibit, with an emphasis on conceptual and performance art, which also happens to be the first major examination of the region's art history. "Valley Vista: Art in the San Fernando Valley, ca. 1970-1990" runs Aug. 25 through Oct. 11 at the Cal State University Northridge Art Galleries.

Since its fateful annexation in 1915 as a throughway for the transport of L.A.'s water supply, the Valley has held second-class status, ridiculed as the epitome of suburban ills. "The Valley gets disparaged for being the home of the strip mall, of sprawl, of gas stations, of 7-Elevens and throwaway architecture. And yet, really," Willick chuckles, "isn't that all of Los Angeles?"

The exhibit focuses on artists who flourished during the 1970s and '80s, the same period, Willick says, when the Valley's brief heyday as a postwar utopia deteriorated into its more or less current identity as just another locus of pollution, crime and graffiti. He's interested in artists who embrace what he calls "the extraordinariness of the ordinary."

That includes painters such as Karla Klarin, whose 1984 Valley View reveals a sobering expanse of gridded houses amid a dreary landscape, enlivened by splashes of pastel hues. It includes photographers such as Mike Mandel, who stood on the corner of Victory Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon in North Hollywood snapping stills of cars waiting to turn right. He produced the exhibit catalog's cover image, an oddly compelling snapshot of a suburban mom with teased hair at the wheel, with her sons — their expressions intent, their mouths agape — staring from the backseat. For another series, photographer John Divola rode his bicycle around Reseda documenting women watering their lawns. Hoses undulate in the background, the subjects' bare legs resting in a classical contrapposto pose.

"They were of the Valley, from the Valley and about the Valley," Willick says of Mandel and Divola, classmates at San Fernando Valley State College, the predecessor of CSUN. "There's something very humorous [and] self-deprecating" in their photographs. "Not pedestrian — quotidian."

Even Jon Swihart, who Willick identifies as one of L.A.'s great photorealist painters, chose to turn his energies toward elevating an atypical subject. Untitled (CSUN Tool Guy), from 1991, depicts Steve Fletcher, a campus employee, as he once appeared at a costume party: as a vegetable fertility god, here standing atop a craggy peak in his military fatigues, a mountain goat at his side, and wearing a crown of carrots and holding a staff of Swiss chard.

Part of the Valley aesthetic is its disregard for the "cool" factor of broader artistic movements — a freedom enabled by the Valley's outsider status compared with L.A.'s more codified art world. Jeffrey Vallance, a performance artist raised in Canoga Park who attended Pierce College and CSUN, followed the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to various mini-mall appearances until the mascot finally invited Vallance to join him. In 1973, Vallance organized a game of Frisbee with L.A. mayor and Valley native Sam Yorty, claiming the politician needed to connect with his youthful constituents. He later presented the mayor with a portrait of Yorty adorned with moths. Vallance's mixed-media tributes to these experiences — both featuring bragging-rights photo documentation — are included in the exhibit.

These encounters exist outside the serious narratives of better-known performance artists such as Chris Burden (who in 1974 crucified himself on the back of a Volkswagen, and whom Vallance admired), but they reflect an egoless playfulness that is distinctly regional. "I don't think Jeffrey Vallance follows that mascot unless he's growing up in an area with new shopping malls and new supermarkets where this mascot is touring promoting hot dogs," Willick says. "And what are hot dogs but to put on the barbecue in middle-class backyards?"

Vallance didn't consider himself an artist, or his elaborate pranks a form of conceptualist expression, until he got to college. "I had no label for it," he told Willick in an interview for East of Borneo, an online art magazine. "It just was what I wanted to do, and it's what I did with my time." Rather, they represented a particular brand of mischievousness born from the desperate boredom that came with living in the Valley. "It's so bland; it's so nothing that you have to invent these fabulous things to keep yourself sane, because if you actually looked around the Valley, you'd want to kill yourself," Vallance said.

Willick now lives on the Westside but, while preparing the exhibit, he met up with Vallance for breakfast at the Canoga Park bowling alley — "which is so perfect," he says — where they were approached by a CSUN alum who admired Vallance's work. The artist introduced Willick to the visitor, who thanked him for his efforts on behalf of the Valley.

"In this one breakfast, you have an artist shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and here's someone he's never met who recognizes him, who comes up almost starstruck," Willick says. "And [Vallance] points to me and says, 'He's doing a show about the Valley,' and she's, like, 'Thank you.' And I was, like, 'That is the coolest thing.'?"

"Valley Vista: Art in the San Fernando Valley, ca. 1970-1990" is at California State University Northridge Art Galleries, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Aug. 25-Oct. 11.

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