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'Valley Vista' at Cal State Northridge takes a stand for Valley art

'Valley Vista' exhibition at Cal State Northridge surveys an overlooked art scene in the San Fernando Valley

The local 7-Eleven is the meeting place, watering hole and cultural center of the San Fernando Valley.

At least that's what Valley-raised artist Jeffrey Vallance wrote in a 1985 essay titled "Avenue of the Absurd: Landmarks of the West San Fernando Valley."

Today Vallance's kitschy mixed-media installations featuring the Oscar Mayer Wiener mascot known as Little Oscar are displayed, along with the work of nearly 40 other artists, including Valley professors and people born, raised or educated there, in an exhibition that opened this weekend titled "Valley Vista: Art in the San Fernando Valley, ca. 1970-1990" at the Cal State Northridge art galleries.

"I have no idea how it happened," Vallance says of the notable art that came out of the Valley during that time. "I don't know if anyone planned it. It just happened to be a great moment."

"Valley Vista" came about because the San Fernando Valley can't catch a break, says art historian and Valley native Damon Willick, who curated the show and penned an illuminating companion book by the same name.

Partly annexed by Los Angeles in 1915, the Valley became known as "America's suburb" in the 1950s and '60s before morphing into what some perceived to be an urban dystopia of sagging strip malls and bland chain stores, reflecting the worst of L.A. — something that residents had tried to escape. Although pockets of the Valley were marginalized as blighted and beleaguered through the last 30 years of the 20th century, they nonetheless nurtured a thriving art scene.

That scene has been overlooked by the city's major cultural institutions, Willick says — a fate cemented by its exclusion from the Getty's lauded Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, which told the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene from 1945 through 1980 via shows at more than 60 venues across Southern California. Though a few exhibitions did include the work of Valley artists, Willick says, none was about the Valley specifically.

With "Valley Vista," Willick is hoping to change that narrative. Taken as a whole, the work exhibited is an edgy collection of colorful, largely counterculture Valley history told through the artwork of the people who lived it: restless young folk and accomplished older artists forming and exploring their identities amid the conflicted, weird and unfairly stereotyped geography they occupied.

"I would walk into these Pacific Standard Time exhibitions and I'd jokingly say, 'Where are the Vals?'" says Willick, associate professor of art history at Loyola Marymount University, during a recent tour of the exhibition. "And what started as a joke became less so when I started to do my research."

Two-thirds of the artists featured in "Valley Vista" attended or taught at CSUN when the school overflowed with extraordinary art professors including photographer Jerry McMillan, abstract expressionist Hans Burkhardt, painter and Artforum critic Peter Plagens, painter Marvin Harden, printmaker Walter Gabrielson, photorealist painter Bruce Everett, and Robert Smith, the founding director of the groundbreaking L.A. Institute of Contemporary Art, which opened in 1974.

The students who flocked to this rich creative soil included Vallance, Judy Baca, Scott Grieger, Mike Mandel, John Divola and Jon Swihart.

"I've always felt very lucky about my education," Vallance, who lives in Canoga Park, says of his time at CSUN in the late '70s. "It was totally by accident that I ended up at Northridge, but there was a renaissance going on, and I just fell into it."

That renaissance was likely brought about by the absolute freedom that the Valley afforded at the time, speculates painter Karla Klarin, whose 3-D construction of faceless tract homes viewed from afar, aptly titled "Valley View," is on display. Klarin went to CSUN in the early '70s and took photography classes with Robert E. von Sternberg.

When she was growing up in Van Nuys in the '50s and '60s, she says it was still a bit like the frontier, with lots of orange groves and old ranch houses. It had a "wonderful sense of the West." As a result young artists could imagine whatever kind of art they wanted to imagine.

"I don't think there was ever a feeling as to a 'right' way to make art," says Klarin. "I mean it was L.A., it was OK to do your own thing because nobody cared anyway. Being ignored means you're free to do whatever you want."

Performance artist and painter Barry Markowitz, who has three pieces in the show, agrees. He moved from New York to California in the '60s when he read an article in the New York Times about "this event called the Summer of Love."

He landed in a termite-ridden apartment building and enrolled at Valley College, where his teacher was the painter Fidel Danieli, the "Leonardo da Van Nuys." It was the late '60s and Markowitz thought, "Well, I've come to the most rural place in the universe."

"You did what you wanted, which was why a lot of people came to L.A. at that time — to do what they wanted without the pressure of formal institutions," Markowitz says. "So many people were coming from all over the country. It was like a culture rush instead of a gold rush."

The Valley and its schools were extra appealing to artists because housing was cheap and so were classes. Markowitz says he paid $11 per unit when he transferred to CSUN.

Like the landscape surrounding them, Valley artists were rough around the edges, fascinated by the greasy underbelly of mainstream pop culture and its antidote, punk rock, as well as the burgeoning countercultures of modern skateboarding and surfing.

"Jeffrey Vallance is following around 'Little Oscar,' and it becomes this conceptual piece and then a performance piece, and it's so different from what's happening at the same time over the hill," Willick says. "Where, let's say, Chris Burden is having himself crucified on the top of a Volkswagen."

Although some argue the art scene isn't quite what it used to be, neither is the Valley, which has become more diverse and cosmopolitan over time. Willick says the university still has a quality art program that attracts good young talent. And with this new show, he hopes to both embrace and disrupt Valley stereotypes, so that denizens of L.A.'s other neighborhoods might better examine the nature of their relationship with more than 1.5 million residents living on about 225 square miles just over the hill.

"I think L.A. shuns the Valley in the way that we try to suppress our id," Willick says. "It's the part of our mind that we need to control because maybe it exposes something of the reality of who we really are."

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

Twitter: @jessicagelt

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