How Do You Capture the San Fernando Valley Through Art?

Sam Erenberg's artwork at the Roscoe station

MetroSam Erenberg's artwork at the Roscoe station

See also:

*5 Artsy Things to Do in L.A. This Week

*Our Calendar Section, Listing More Great Things to Do in L.A.

*Fugly Buildings: Our Series on the Most Hideous Buildings in L.A.

The Expo Line's opening last spring may have snagged all the headlines, but a few months later, the Valley debuted its own transit triumph: the Orange Line busway completed its 18-mile route connecting North Hollywood to Chatsworth. This light-rail-on-wheels has become an internationally recognized and locally beloved institution, and a new exhibition showcasing its public art program, explaining the process behind the artworks that are at 18 stations now dotting the San Fernando Valley.

Twenty artists are featured in the show, which is on view until Dec. 13 in a gallery tucked into Los Angeles Valley College's art building in Valley Glen. The roster includes lead artist Renée Petropoulos, whose vision was to create a "necklace" of artworks that string through the Valley, so each station is portrayed as a link in this chain, with uniform elements like elliptical mosaics and porcelain enamel steel panels. Even the Orange Line's landscaping is a work of art: we learn that landscape artist Jud Fine chose the distances between trees, for example, to create a sense of movement.

For the rest of the 18 artists, who are all working in California, the exhibition shows the explorations that led to their site-specific works as well as photos of their work in context at each of the stations. Seeing them together, themes emerge. Most artists, for example, chose to nod to one of the Valley's major exports like agriculture, entertainment and tectonic shifts (no porn industry references, however).

Phung Huynh's Pond Landscape is an oil and collage on wooden panel (2008)

MetroPhung Huynh's Pond Landscape is an oil and collage on wooden panel (2008)

California pride is strong, so poppies and oranges are, not surprisingly, omnipresent, as is imagery of the native flora and fauna of the Valley. The best works offer a twist on these literal depictions of nature, like Ken Gonsalez-Day's photography of majestic local oaks, given a kaleidoscopic treatment that render the trees almost unrecognizable.

Other artists pull more urban, graphic elements directly from the surrounding community: John O'Brien's pieces use abstracted satellite maps, and Roy Dowell's are composed with snippets of signage from the neighborhood. Sam Erenberg's work for the Roscoe station (top image) is probably the most literal piece in the program, with the streaky lights of nearby streets photographed at night from a moving car.

The inclusion of the different sketches and explorations that brought the artists to their pieces are also interesting. Daniel Marlos's geometric patterns for the Woodman station are culled from traditional quilting techniques, so an impressive quilt by him hangs in the space. And Anne Marie Karlsen's quest to create an "outdoor living room" for the Nordhoff station shows the original collages she created with local imagery to evoke wallpaper and area rugs.

A quilt by Daniel Marlos accompanies the quilt-like graphics he created for the Woodman station

MetroA quilt by Daniel Marlos accompanies the quilt-like graphics he created for the Woodman station

While the work is visually intriguing, what's missing in this exhibition is more information about the process itself: how the artists moved from their freeflowing studio work into the constraints of public art. The art program's curation wasn't simply a top-down process: the artists responded to a call-for-proposals and were subjected to rigorous reviews from fellow artists as well as local residents. Some of these residents created visual guides to their neighborhoods to help the artists understand the communities they were working in.

But much of the wall text at the show is simply biographical, without any of this insight, and an important dialogue around the challenges of creating public art is missing. I want to hear the story about how Sandow Birk's work that pulls pages from the original Tarzan books was chosen for Tarzana's Tampa Avenue station. I want to know exactly how the meeting went down when it was decided that bus riders would be walking on the jungle-inspired patterns of Tarzan's underpants.

Public art has to appeal on different levels, argues Heidi Zeller, Metro's senior creative services officer and the exhibition coordinator. "For the person who's just passing through the station, they'll be able to appreciate it on a visual level," she says. "But maybe a regular commuter will find something new each time." While it's probably true that most riders will never move beyond a strictly visual engagement, Metro offers a comprehensive online art guide and hosts docent-led tours of the various lines that might touch on some of these stories. But for those who want instant information, the placards at each station offer only a brief description.

Sandow Birk's panel from his piece Tarzan and Tarzana (2005)

MetroSandow Birk's panel from his piece Tarzan and Tarzana (2005)

While in the gallery, I found myself itching to see each piece in action, to judge for myself how well each piece worked in its station. This is made easy since Los Angeles Valley College, where the exhibit is located, is anchored by an Orange Line stop at its southwestern corner, making for a very pleasant art and transit field trip where one can see the pieces, then view the work in the wild -- and see how well they've held up. I asked Phung Huynh, who's also a professor at Valley College, how her giddy tableau of Chinese cherubs frolicking with citrus was faring at the Laurel Canyon station. This was her first public art piece and she hasn't been able to bring herself to go visit it yet, she said. "I'm too scared!"

Luckily, even with the threat of graffiti, most pieces are in good shape. But on my way home, I was most dismayed to find that at the Valley College station, Metro had taped information about validating TAP cards directly over Laura London's photography that stages portraits in important Southern California locations from rock history -- yards from where the same piece was hung in the gallery! If Metro's own employees can't see it, I'd say the stations aren't doing enough to communicate the importance of the art.

Like my request for more information in the exhibition, my hope is that additional signage, QR codes or another smartphone-appropriate, location-based system could be added to the stations to provide more background on the artworks and artists. I'd also love to see little anecdotes about the community engagement process to help show riders how the art represents their neighborhood. And maybe a place for residents to chime in with their thoughts. The Orange Line is a great source of Valley pride, and I'd argue that making the stories behind the art more accessible would lead to even greater respect for the system.

"Translations: Artists of the Metro Orange Line" is up through Dec. 13 at Valley College Art Gallery, 5800 Fulton Ave. Valley Glen, CA 91401. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Closed for the Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving holidays.

See also:

*5 Artsy Things to Do in L.A. This Week

*Our Calendar Section, Listing More Great Things to Do in L.A.

*Fugly Buildings: Our Series on the Most Hideous Buildings in L.A.

Alissa Walker blogs at Follow her on Twitter at @gelatobaby and for more arts news like us on Facebook or follow us at @LAWeeklyArts.