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Art Frontier or Wasteland? : Cheaper Rents, Less Pressure and Relative Isolation Draw Artists to Area

November 06, 1986|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Jeffrey Vallance's latest work features primitive drawings of turtles and squids set against symbols of modern life: the 7-Eleven logo, a Visa card, Billy Idol.

Vallance suspects this may be an artistic reaction to the environment he grew up in, a land of shopping malls, movie theater complexes and fast food restaurants--the San Fernando Valley.

"The Valley does not recognize anything artistic. It is acultural," said Vallance, a native of Canoga Park and one of Los Angeles' most popular young artists. "It's just a rental house, it's not really connected to the rest of society."

Van Nuys has never been mistaken for an art mecca. There are no revered contemporary museums in Reseda or Sylmar. Although some 1.3 million people live on this side of the hill, the area supports only one well-known gallery. Perhaps its most famous landmark is the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

Attracted by Cheaper Rents

Yet, a number of locally and nationally recognized artists live and work in the Valley. Many, like Vallance, have moved to its quiet, suburban neighborhoods in search of cheaper rents than can be found in the downtown and Venice art communities. Others were born in the Valley or remained after studying at California State University, Northridge or California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Some have come over the hill by choice. They say they relish the relative isolation of working away from galleries, critics and the influence of other artists.

"There is a feeling of freedom here," said painter Lynn Coleman, who moved to Woodland Hills with her husband, artist Craig Stecyk, five years ago. "It's not as pretentious, you don't have the snobbery you have on the Westside."

Explained Louise Lewis, director of the CSUN art gallery: "We can avoid the sense of an aesthetic being forced upon us. We can walk down the street with stockbrokers. We are more mixed in with the people than the artistic community downtown.

"I like the contact with a lot of non-art people," she said. "It gives you perspective."

Blend Into Neighborhoods

There is no true artistic community in the Valley and likely never will be, artists say. Neighborhoods are too numerous and spread out, and there is no gallery or popular cafe to draw artists together. They reside anonymously among clusters of homes or businesses.

Vallance, whose work is shown regularly in downtown galleries and who has had shows internationally as well, rents the same small, plain house he lived in as a boy. He earns enough from selling pieces to be a full-time artist, working out of a cluttered garage behind his home.

Candice Ocampo leases a storefront building next door to a shabby-looking church in North Hollywood. Her neighborhood is made up of auto-parts stores and junkyards. The area is zoned strictly for businesses, so she lives there illegally.

Living the Loft Life

The 40-year-old Ocampo sleeps in the back room, in a wooden loft built over a refrigerator, a hot plate and a small desk. The front room has been converted into a workshop that is cluttered with her art: brightly colored paintings and writhing monsters built of torn heater ducts, wires and tubes and shattered car windshields.

"It seems that the art out here is a little different," she said. "It feels open to me. You can do anything."

Deviation from the norm of Los Angeles art is common among Valley artists, Lewis said. Some examples:

Steve Moore, a 28-year-old Northridge native, takes standard bowling trophies and adds extra figures, lights and esoteric titles such as "Art Transcending Religion and Science" and "Mercury: Plebian God of Commerce."

Craig Stecyk's installation at the USC Atelier in Santa Monica features several walls covered with automobile hubcaps he scavenged from highways and junkyards, hood ornaments from 1950s automobiles and tail fins from Buicks, Cadillacs and Sunbeams that Stecyk sawed off by hand. For his next project, he hopes to saw the tail off a Boeing 747.

Sheila Elias, an internationally known Tarzana artist who has been invited to exhibit a work in the Louvre, painted 750 brown shopping bags with black Xs and distributed them among the destitute street people of downtown Los Angeles.

Not Concerned With Trends

"Valley artists are individualistic," said Robert Gino, co-owner of the Orlando Gallery in Sherman Oaks. "One thing about downtown is that there is an overlapping of styles. In the Valley, artists have the freedom not to be concerned with what is the popular trend of the day."

Some Valley artists agreed that they aren't as influenced by the styles of others as would be the case if they lived downtown.

"It's almost peer pressure. A lot of the time you can be easily persuaded to do art that isn't intrinsically what you want," said Hal Honigsberg, a Sepulveda artist whose work has shown to favorable reviews at Eilat Gordin Gallery in West Hollywood. "I like being a little separated from the artists in L.A."

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