Pop culture has cast "The Valley" as many roles over the years, helping to create a distinct identity for this area in the hearts and minds of the masses -- often referring to this area being full of vapid teenagers, porn stars, shopaholics, clueless WASPs, track housing and style-devoid dweebs. Movies like "Valley Girl," "Earth Girls Are Easy," "Foxes," "Encino Man," "Boogie Nights," and "Clueless" have pushed the stereotypes of the Valley further into our subconscious, solidifying a misconception of this large part of Los Angeles. Even musician Frank Zappa expressed distaste for the Valley in his 1982 hit, "Valley Girl." In reality, the Valley is a wealth of cultural diversity, important art, and music. Existing as the truest suburb in the sprawling metropolis of L.A., the art and culture to come out of this area is often overlooked.
Now, the San Fernando Valley is now getting some much deserved attention in the light of art history. "Valley Vista: Art in the San Fernando Valley, CA. 1970-1990" is one of the first retrospective survey exhibitions focusing on the important art and artists that came out of this area during this pivotal time in local art history. Loyola Marymount University Art history professor Dr. Damon Willick was raised in the Valley and he curated the exhibition at California State University Northridge's art gallery, which runs until October 11, 2014.
"It all started with the joke, when I was walking through the PST exhibitions, and I would ask where the 'Vals' were," Willick jokes. From that point, Willick spent two years researching and reaching out to find more artists and movements who were connected to this important part of the Valley's art history.
Willick documents the history of the Valley briefly in the exhibition catalog and book accompanying "Valley Vista," and notes important movements in the area's history as it pertains to the local art movements. "I think the Valley is often overlooked or stereotyped, because, in a way, it tells us something about Los Angeles that maybe Los Angeles doesn't want to know about itself," Willick says.
With a population of nearly two million people and 34 neighborhoods, according to the 2012 U.S. Census, the San Fernando Valley is a huge portion of Los Angeles County, nearly half of it on a map, and one of the largest cities in the United States. The Valley's population is predominantly Latino (with 42 percent of the total population) with Caucasians following close behind and Asian-Americans filling 13 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Valley's core population is also between the ages of 19-34, making this area an ideal demographic area for creativity and economic growth--that's a large chunk of the greater Los Angeles area that's often left out of the L.A. conversation.
L.A. annexed the Valley in 1915, following the opening of William Mulholland's Los Angeles Aqueduct that helped bring water down from the Owens Valley to L.A. right through the San Fernando Valley. The Aqueduct is one of the first major contributing factors that helped Los Angeles expand to the thriving metropolis it is today. Willick says that from the moment the aqueduct was opened, the Valley's relationship to L.A. was in service to the city, even though it now comprised a large percentage of the metropolis.
The population in the Valley grew steadily every decade following the aqueduct's creation by nearly double, and by the 1970s, it exceeded one million people thanks to the influx of job opportunities in aerospace, film and automotive industries. But with the larger number of people steadily moving into the Valley to escape the escalating housing costs of Los Angeles, culture grew in the Valley as well.
The story of the Valley may not be as glamorous as the greater Los Angeles, but Willick says that he was influenced by the way PST looked at regional art, and thought it'd be the perfect time to explore the valley's rich history in art as well. "It's not really a heroic narrative, and I think that PST has created a narrative of Los Angeles that is really great undoubtedly, but it told a story that was extraordinary, and I'm looking at a part of Los Angeles that could be described as ordinary," Willick says.
"Valley Vista" highlights the fine details in the history of Valley art that only locals might know. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, architecture and artistic sub-cultures quietly gained momentum in the area, rivaling its neighboring creative activity of Los Angeles. Artistic minds like Richard Neutra and Frank Ehrenthal helped shape the architectural landscape of the Valley with visionary mid-century buildings and ornate neon signage, while more eclectic visionaries like Daniel Can Meter, John Ehn, and Esteban Bojorquez brought an artistic flare to the Valley's love of architecture with structural, quirky, accessible art.
In the late 1950s, art galleries started opening and universities and colleges began popping up across the Valley landscape. In 1958, the Orlando Gallery opened as a part of a dance school, but quickly separated into one of the most progressive art galleries--with a strong foundation in performance-based work--in the city, according to Willick, and remained open until 2011. Another influential gallery, R. Mutt Gallery opened in 1973 and specialized in experimental and sub-genre art forms but only lasted for about five years. The universities in the area, California State University, Northridge, San Fernando Valley State College and Los Angeles Valley College also came up as major contributors in the contemporary Valley art scene. "A big part of the story too, is Cal State Northridge," Willick says. "That is the cultural institution in the Valley. So, part of the exhibition really exposes how great of a university art program that the college has had for years. I think Northridge really should be considered part of that fabric of Los Angeles art scene." The artwork and artists these spaces exhibited were on the cutting edge of contemporary art and contributed meaningful exhibitions for collectors and artists of that time, including early works from notable artists including Judith Baca, Betye Saar and Peter Alexander.
The presence of the many talented artists in the Valley was enough sway to occasionally bring L.A. traffic over the hill, but more importantly, because many of these great artists were involved in the universities, they were influencing whole generations with their intellect, unique perspectives, creativity and artwork. "The Valley was a unique environment for contemporary art, and yet viewed by the broader L.A. art world as insignificant and unworthy of attention," Willick says. Willick, a native of the San Fernando Valley also notes that the artists during this time were doing their part to help the Valley flourish as an area, and the Valley as a place, with all its mini-malls, institutions, charm and quirk also helped the artists to flourish, shaping their specific perspectives and artwork, which further helped shape this unique area. "'Valley Vista' is a starting point--just one of many histories that can be written--for surveying the Valley and its role in art history, and I am acutely aware of my blind spots," Willick explains. "The Valley is as diverse and complicated as the greater Los Angeles area; just as there is not one LA, there are multiple Valleys and, thus, multiple art histories of the place."
"Who we are emerges partly from the places where we live," Willick elaborates, "yet, the definition of place is constantly shifting."
In the 1970s and 1980s, to some, the suburban mis-imagined utopia of the Valley seemed to turn a corner and the perception of it changed too. As though lingering in the background, slowly decaying, the idea of the "Main Street U.S.A.," with the white picket fence of the suburbs was no longer the perceived truth about the Valley. Looking back, it seems that the burgeoning artwork during that time reflected a more realistic truth; a kind of seedy, urbanized, shamble of consumer-based landscape, full of mini-malls and liquor stores. There have been many artists and musicians to hate on the Valley, with movies, music and popular culture references all degrading the area to an unimportant wasteland of consumerism and stale life, Willick even cites critic Dave Hickey's dismissal of the Valley as a "'smoggy sprawl of quotidian American Arcadia;" and its culture as limited to "fast-food signage, assorted miracles of low-rider engineering, and the translucent dreams that waft off the Universal lots;" and concluding that it was the place "where authenticity comes to die."
"There's a sort of elitist distaste of the middle class," Willick explains. "I think also part of it is that stereotypes are also based on partial truths; it's a pretty easy target when it is so sprawled and it is an example of suburban urban planning gone awry. But what I would argue is that a lot of Los Angeles has similar aesthetic and sprawl and pollution."
Willick says that many critics thought that the Valley served as an example of the demonization of suburbanization to the point of excess, but it was just an easy target. It often was used as the butt of jokes, "for its profligate sprawl, kooky architecture, unhip telephone area code and home-grown porn industry, as well as for that mythical tribe of nasal-toned, IQ-challenged teen-aged girls who like to shop," writes historian Kevin Roderick, in his book, "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb."
The "Valley Vista" exhibition has a strong selection of works ranging from photography, installation, drawings, book art, body art documentation and sculpture and painting, covering some of the most significant artists based in that area in the 1970s and '80s. Some of the monumental artists in "Valley Vista" include non-conforming installation artist Esteban Bojorquez, boundary-pushing contemporary photographer John Divola, ground-breaking performance artist Jeffrey Vallance, and many more. "That's really the point of the exhibition -- trying to open up what Los Angeles is and what Los Angeles art is and was," Willick says.