The San Fernando Valley is a joke. A running joke that had its heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s. There was “beautiful downtown Burbank,” ceaselessly mocked by Johnny Carson. There was the Van Nuys porn industry, most famously ridiculed in Boogie Nights. There was Encino’s “valley girl,” legendarily skewered in the Zappa pop hit. And now comes Valley Vista: Art in the San Fernando Valley ca. 1970–1990, and it’s a major punchline changer for Valley jokes.
Valley Vista is a new gallery exhibition at California State University, Northridge, one that reaches beyond all the shallow regional stereotypes. The works on display offer revelations that enlighten and expand our understanding of that particular time and place. And to a large extent, they’re quite amusing, albeit in edgy, unsettling ways. There’s Jeffrey Vallance’s suburban-spoofing sculptural shrine to Oscar Mayer’s wiener. There’s the self-explanatory “The Brain That Thinks Holes Through Boiler Plates” painting by Robert Williams. And there are merciless, riveting shots of the area’s denizens by photographers like Mike Mandel, who states in his catalog contribution that “when your whole world is shopping malls and billboards and asphalt, and the Little League field a few blocks away is suddenly torn out to become a section of the Hollywood Freeway, you learn to develop a sense of humor about the unbridled commercialism that the Valley seemed to celebrate.”
The curator, Loyola Marymount University professor and art historian Damon Willick, says that the show was largely driven by his irritation with the J. Paul Getty Trust’s six month, 60-cultural-institution Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980, from three years ago. He was highly dissatisfied that its “effort to identify and document Southern California’s diverse and vibrant postwar culture … ignored the San Fernando Valley completely.” He also views such gross imbalance as part of a general cultural dismissal of his birthplace and current home base. “The Valley is often overlooked or ignored in surveys and histories of Los Angeles. Though it’s within the city limits, the Valley complicates these histories. It’s easier to omit the area than accommodate its inclusion.”
Willick believes that Cal State Northridge’s gallery space is an ideal venue, not only due to its reputation in the community but also because of its association with a significant number of the artists represented. “The Valley’s major cultural institution is CSUN, and it just so happens that CSUN has had a world class art department since the 1960s. Its faculty has always been active in the LA art scene, and their presence in the Valley motivated many of their students to pursue careers in the arts.”
Various printed materials from the period are also on display, such as Thrasher, the magazine of skate culture and comics. There are also issues of The Dumb Ox, an art journal of critical theory and discourse, as well as collage magazines and band flyers produced by an artists’ collective with a Devo-ish distaste for modern society and technology. Willick uses such artifacts for educational as well as aesthetic purposes. “The common myth is that Los Angeles lacked critical writing and publications during this period when, in fact, there were journals like The Dumb Ox and World Imitation being made in the Valley.
“I also included the Monitor flyers to highlight the many connections between L.A.’s visual arts with the area’s punk music scene. The members of Monitor were all involved with World Imitation Productions, and their musical activities were integrally connected to their visual art. There’s also a great DIY aesthetic and mentality in the World Imitation and Monitor works that I hope is recognizable in current culture.”
The show’s been warmly received by the arts community and the media as well as the public at large. It’s also reaped supplementary rewards for Willick. “The most satisfying reactions have been from young artists working in the Valley now. Many didn’t realize the rich art history of the place. They’ve expressed a wonderful sense of pride in their continuation of this tradition.”
And speaking of continuation, Willick sees his project as “a starting point. There are innumerable directions that future scholars can take in regards to the Valley. I would love to see a show on post-1990s art.”
Valley View closes October 11th. But Willick’s smart, content and image rich exhibition catalog will continue to be available.