Jeffrey Vallance, Robert Williams, Benjamin Weissman, Scott Grieger, John Divola, Mike Mandel, Michael McMillan, Judith Baca, Stephen Seemayer: Anyone familiar with contemporary art in L.A. will recognize the names of these artists. All have successful, critically praised careers. What do they have in common? The Valley, as students at CSUN.
Damon Willick has organized Valley Vista: Art in the San Fernando Valley ca. 1970-1990, an exhibition that fills a gap left by the otherwise comprehensive Pacific Standard Time exhibitions of 2011: Artists who attended Cal State Northridge, especially in the 1970s, and some of their teachers. The show closes this Saturday, October 11, but is definitely worth a visit.
It was 105 degrees when I visited last Saturday but the place was bustling with artists and students checking out the improbable: art made in what often seems like an unendingly desolate stretch of suburbs. Art, however, is an interior process. Some of the least compelling art is produced in Carmel, one of the most glorious spots in California. And some very good art, it turns out, was made in the San Fernando Valley.
This part of the Valley, at Reseda and Nordhoff, is not that changed from the ‘70s: Tahitian-themed apartment complexes, mural-covered panaderias, used car lots and pawnbrokers abound. As Vallance writes in his catalogue essay Avenue of the Absurd: Landmarks of the West San Fernando Valley, time there seems to start in the 1950s when the actual history of the area was replaced by “fake history in the form of borrowed, historical-style architecture.” In the fascinating and often amusing catalogue compiled by curator Damon Willick, and published by Angel City Press, Vallance contributes illustrations of the Aku Aku Inn, the Victorian Platt Building and, of course, Batman a Go-Go. (All with their actual addresses.) The exhibition itself includes his portrait of former Mayor Sam Yorty, with moths, and a tableau based on his encounters with the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.
A complex assemblage by Michael C. McMillen includes an assemblage advertisement for his Traveling Mystery Museum of 1974 that shows how mature were his earliest aspirations and concerns as an artist.
And why would this unlikely location produce art? The college was inexpensive — less than $50 a semester, according to one account — so was housing and food. Artists could afford to concentrate on their art and were encouraged to do so by a stellar faculty that included art critic and painter Peter Plagens and art historian and writer Fidel Danielli. Christopher Williams, another alum and now having a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, once quipped that the path from North Hollywood High to CalArts was through Valley College.
Conceptual and performance art and photography evolved together in the 1970s and that is more than evident in the show. Scott Grieger’s Impersonations (1971), involved himself photographed while posing as works of minimal art by John McCracken, Robert Irwin and others. The black and white photographs remain both astute and wry. Rena Small’s Johnny Carson Curtain Images (1984) document the rainbow background that was reserved for exclusive use behind the iconic talk show host. Black and white deadpan documents by Mike Mandel and John Divola capture a sweet absurdity and unexpected dignity in their pictures of neighborhoods and their residents.
Outsider sentiments reign in the Chicken Shack assemblage of Esteban Bojorquez, the outlandish graphic painting of Robert Williams, punk rock flyers for performances by Monitor, Johanna Went and Meat Puppets, ‘zines and skate board culture artifacts but also in serious magazines like Dumb Ox produced by critic James Hugunin and the L.A. Institute of Contemporary Art Journal produced by Robert Smith, then teaching graphic art at CSUN.
Though not a very large exhibition, it reinforces the position that artists can be at the their most original while operating apart from cultural institutions, critical approval and the maddening market.
And by the way, for more on LA in the ‘70s, read Michael Fallon’s important new book, Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s and hear him discuss it with Lisa Napoli on KCRW.com. For more information, go to csun.edu/artgalleries.