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LAist Interview: Mark Vallen

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Mark Vallen has been making art in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. A native Angeleno, Mark has integrated the city's residents and landmarks into his work since his teens, when he worked on seminal LA punk publication Slash Magazine and captured the early punk scene in a series of sketches, drawings, and paintings. Mark continues the DIY spirit by supporting LA's contemporary art scene, advocating for change against the status quo and sharing his opinion about the current state of painting and culture on his blog, Art for Change.

You can see Mark's current work in the shows "And Now, For Something Newd" at Avenue 50 Studio and "The New Normalcy," which opens on February 25th at Carlotta's Passion Fine Art. To see Vallen's artworks, as well as a full schedule of his upcoming exhibitions, please visit www.markvallen.com

Age and Occupation:
I’m 52 years old, and as for my profession - I’m a visual artist. In fact it’s more of a calling, I can’t help myself, I’ve felt compelled to make images ever since I was a child.

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How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
I was born in Los Angeles, in the South L.A. community of Leimert Park to be precise. When I was about six years old, my parents moved to the San Fernando Valley, a place I’ve called home ever since. While I’ve taken up residence in various parts of the city, I’ve always returned to the Valley. Currently I live in the so-called "No Ho Arts District," a borough in North Hollywood that’s struggling to establish itself as a center for the arts.

Why do you live in Los Angeles?
For the photochemical sunsets. In point of fact, there’s no other city on earth like L.A., despite its reputation for being "laid back" and idyllic, it can be a hard, ugly and unwelcoming place. They didn’t film Blade Runner on LA’s streets for nothing. This is the home of the drive-by shooting, where police patrol neighborhoods by helicopters and the homeless freeze to death on streets lined with palm trees. I guess you can say I’m a glutton for punishment. But LA also holds boundless promise as a place where people can reinvent themselves, it has become a futuristic city that sets international trends - and that’s always a good place for an artist to live. I have to say that I love the people of LA - in all of their multi-cultural glory. It’s the multi-ethnic face of this place that I find most attractive and inspiring.

You were part of a group exhibition Don't Talk About Religion Or Politics. Now that it has concluded, what did the show mean to you and what do you hope visitors got from viewing the works on display? Why organize a show on this topic now and in Los Angeles?
I have a reputation for creating strong images based on current realities, but I don’t think of myself as being a "political artist." In actual fact I reject the term as a definition of what I do, since it sets my work apart from that of other artists. I’m no more or less "political" than a David Hockney or an Andy Warhol; to me all art is political because it’s the result of human labor. Avoiding an examination of social issues in one’s art is just as much a political stance as going out of one’s way to express an opinion. That being said, I wanted the "Don't Talk About Religion Or Politics" show to help redefine the meaning of "political art." People expected to see an exhibition full of strident images critical of George W. Bush, but as the curator of the exhibit - I wanted to avoid that type of hackneyed work. Of course, religion’s intersection with politics was also a focus of the show, but I was aiming at dialog and understanding, and not simply goading people for the sake of controversy - which is an extremely easy thing to do. Instead the show was deeply nuanced and contemplative, an open hand rather than a fist - inviting individuals to challenge their perceptions of political and spiritual matters.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
My number one pick for a film made about LA was produced by Japanese superstar and director, Beat Takeshi Kitano. It took an outsider to make such an honest and straightforward movie about LA. His 2000 gritty action picture Brother perfectly captured the dark underbelly of the city, with its racial tension, warring criminal gangs, and corrupt government officials. Basically it's the story of a yakuza who escapes assassination in Japan by coming to LA, where he establishes his own criminal empire. In doing so he becomes allied to Black and Latino gangsters, and as partners in crime they become true "brothers" who are willing to die for each other. Omar Epps first came to my attention as one of the main protagonists in Brother - he currently plays a doctor in the popular television series "House."

I also like John Carpenter's They Live a political science fiction thriller that was shot on the streets of LA in 1988. Irrespective of the fact that it was a low budget production, it was, like the best science fiction, a thoroughly subversive film. There are many other essential films about this city that I like, Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, LA Confidential, Crash - obviously I have a darker vision. One little gem is the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization directed by Penelope Spheeris. Featuring raw performances by some of LA's original late '70s punk bands, it is the best chronicle on film of the early US punk rock movement. I'm biased of course because I worked on the picture, having provided the post-production subtitles for the music performances. That aside, it was exciting to have witnessed the historic filming of The Germs, X, Black Flag, and all the others who appeared in the movie.

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What were your favorite LA bands in the '70s and '80s?
I was an active participant in the original punk rock explosion that hit LA. in 1977, and I was enthralled by a number of the earliest punk bands like The Bags, Plugz, Deadbeats, Skulls, and the Alley Cats. It's not easy to pick favorites from amongst those pioneers of musical mayhem, but The Weirdos and The Screamers were two extraordinarily innovative bands always at the top of my list. The Screamers abandoned guitars altogether, favoring synthesizers to create an idiosyncratic brand of aggressive techno-punk. Being an artist, I captured the early punk scene as it happened in a series of sketches, drawings, and paintings - sometimes even taking sketchbooks into concert halls to draw band members and fans. I also worked for LA's premiere punk publication, Slash Magazine, creating cover illustrations for the avant-garde periodical. Some day I'll get around to organizing all of that artwork into an exhibition.

What is your latest project about?
My latest project is essentially a continuation of what I've been creating my entire life, which is a visual record of the people and events of the city of Los Angeles - from the late 20th Century to the early 21st. All of my various projects have this one unifying factor. While I strive towards creating drawings and paintings with an internationalist or universal message, my work is clearly based upon my life and experiences here in Los Angeles - I'm very much a contemporary L.A. artist.

What is uniquely "LA" about the arts scene now?
There are good and bad characteristics to LA's distinctive arts scene. On the downside, we've been stuck in the doldrums for the longest time - too many have been chasing money and the latest trends. That's not necessarily unique, but I think dissolution and collapse are apt descriptions for what's been happening here. On the other hand, I see glimmers of hope in the present and future course for LA's artists. There is great inspiration to be derived from the diverse communities that make up this city, and the energy and life of this place is enough to inspire any artist.

You've been instrumental in rallying community support for Self Help Graphics. How do you feel about where the institution is now?
Self Help Graphics and Artwas born in the late 1960's as a direct result of activism in the Chicano community, and it was that unity of thought, spirit, and action on the part of the community that helped keep the institution going for decades. However, that energy began to dissipate as activism receded, especially by the 1990's when various pressures, including that of bureaucratic management, began to take its toll on the institution. Currently Self Help is going through a painful transition to re-establish itself as a dynamic cultural organization, and it remains to be seen whether or not the effort will be successful. I don't think the solution can be found in corporate money or government assistance, but in going back to the "roots" of the institution - that is, public activism and support. If the Chicano community is politically and culturally engaged, then its institutions will be healthy - so the strength of Self Help Graphics and Art will really be determined by community resolve.

You have expressed strong feelings about Ed Ruscha's connection to the George W. Bush administration, having accepted the Bush administration's invitation to represent the US at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Is it an artist's responsibility to consider politics in every aspect of his career? Can an artist ever be neutral?
I can't imagine the Bush State Department ever considering me as an artist eligible to represent America- but if by some miracle they extended such an invitation to me I would graciously decline to accept it. Not that I wouldn't be honored to represent the American people as an artist - but accepting an invitation from the Bush administration would be a form of tacit approval of its policies. It's hard to visualize Ruscha thinking he was maintaining neutrality by accepting the administration's appointment, which is all the more significant now that Ruschahas become a trustee to the board of directors at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art.

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How did the art community react to your efforts to publicize Rusha's selection at the Venice Biennale?
The facts surrounding Ruscha's connection to the Bush administration have been completely ignored by the arts community, and my attempts to make known the particulars have been met with complete indifference - which is rather shocking considering the reputation the arts community has for being "liberal."

Is an artistic style or genre more valuable than another? You criticize Rusha's work for being safe because it is minimalist; do think all art should be expressed via realism?
Actually, I've never criticized Ruscha's work for being minimalist, as I value all styles and genres. What I disparage is the postmodernist emphasis on form over content, or process over result - which has lead to an imbalance in modern art. As for the question of realism in painting, for years we've been told by art world elites that figurative painting is passé, some have even gone so far as to say "painting is dead." No one is ever taken to task for making such ludicrous remarks, but as an advocate of figurative realism I'm continually accused of being a reactionary who hates modern art and wishes to impose realism upon everyone - which is utter nonsense. My position is that figurative realism has largely been excluded and shunned by the art world in favor of conceptual, performance, video and installation art. In calling for the re-establishment of painting to its former respected position, I'm seeking equilibrium - but I'm not looking for a return to the past. To quote a phrase from the Stuckists, we cannot paint as if space travel, computers, and punk rock never happened. I think painters must also offer exceptional content, so I'm thinking in terms of superior technique coupled with interesting narratives or messages. On a personal level, I have a lot to say to my audience, and figurative realism affords me the best way to make my intentions clearly understood.

What do you think of the "Not a Cornfield" project?
It has served as a wonderful conduit for community gatherings, a place for thoughtful conversations about the future of our city. We need many more such transformative locales in the urban setting - green places for philosophical play and communication. I like the fact that the organizers behind the cornfield were cognizant of creating an environment, or situation, that would indelibly affect people - in that sense the project was an artistic one. However, I don't view the cornfield as an art piece per se, more like an exercise in social engineering or activism.

What's the best place to walk in LA?
One of my favorite places to walk is the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area in the San Fernando Valley - it's an oasis of sorts that's only fifteen minutes from where I live. The spot is used by migratory birds like Canadian Geese and Warblers, but it's also home to Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Cormorants, Ducks, and Pelicans. The basin has a large Japanese Garden that is quite authentic and a real pleasure to wander through any time of the year. Balboa Lake, a man-made body of water whose shoreline is dotted with hundreds of cherry trees, is also part of the area. I always walk there in the spring when the cherry blossoms come out - it's a breathtaking sight. I also love Franklin Canyon Park, which is nestled in the hills along Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland Drive. It's a beautiful area with pine trees, sage brush, hiking trails, and a lake. Actually, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built a reservoir there in 1914, and as pre-teens my friends and I would sneak onto the grounds for a thrill. The opening shots of the Andy Griffith show were filmed on the reservoir's shoreline!

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
Well, if I could time travel I'd go back to see how the original inhabitants lived. The San Fernando Valley got its name from the Fernandeño Indians who lived in the area 2,000 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish, and with our temperate climate and natural plenty it must have been quite an idyllic life. Imagine the Chumash people living along the coast hunting seals and whales from their dugout canoes, they not only had the resources of the land to sustain them - but the entire rich bounty of the sea. But then, knowing my luck, I'd probably be eaten by a bear - every time has it drawbacks. At any rate, I'm too much of a curiosity seeker to feel comfortable with being stuck in a particular era - I'd certainly like to escape this one, that's for sure. As long as I'm fantasizing about time travel, I'd like to see what Los Angeles will look like a hundred years from now - provided there's anything left to survey.

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What is the "center" of LA to you?
For me the center of Los Angeles has been, and will always be, Olvera Street, which was part of the original pueblo built by Mexican settlers in 1781. Outsiders usually castigate Angelinos for "having no history," but that's a false assumption - we have a long and rich history that stretches back to the original indigenous inhabitants of the land. I've been visiting Olvera Street ever since I was a child, and some of my formative memories spring from events I experienced there - like breaking open my first piñata and scrambling for the candies when I was around five years old. All throughout my childhood my father took me to Olvera Street to eat taquitos.

What's your favorite mural in LA county?
Unquestionably that would have to be América Tropical by famed Mexican Muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros. Painted on a rooftop wall on L.A.'s historic Olvera Street in 1932, the mural has had immeasurable influence on countless Angelinos. The painting depicted Latin America plundered by the U.S., and it was whitewashed by conservatives soon after its completion. The work was basically forgotten and remained hidden from the public until the late 1960's, when the whitewash began to peel away. Of course that occurred as the Mexican American civil rights movement was in full blossom, and activist Chicanos in L.A. strongly identified with the mural. The rediscovery of América Tropical helped to inspire the Chicano arts movement, which in turn created hundreds of amazing murals across the city.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
I'd like a giant warehouse like Andy Warhol's Factory, but located in downtown Los Angeles near the historic Little Tokyo district. I lived in an artist's loft in that neighborhood during the late 1980's and never forgot the experience. Being a great aficionado of Japanese culture, it was marvelous to have ready access to a steady stream of Japanese American festivals, events, and entertainment; as well as being able to haunt the noodle shops and sushi bars in the quarter - but it was also a miserable bohemian existence. To begin with there were no screens on the windows of my loft, and in the summertime the mosquitoes from the L.A. river would eat me alive. It was like camping in the wild. What I'm currently imagining is a spacious industrial building with all the amenities of a home - a place where I could create gigantic paintings, silk-screen prints, and hold noisy parties and community meetings on the arts. I envision a gothic black skyscraper fully armored and protected by walls of razor wire, guard towers, and moats - a real L.A. dream house - like something out of George A. Romero's Land of the Dead.

Describe your best LA dining experience.
I'm a real aficionado of the culinary arts, as well as an amateur cook, but I also enjoy simple pleasures, and LA's international character offers a multitude of those. You are more likely to find me in an unfussy working class eatery than in some fancy place, but that's not to say the food is any less delicious. I'll never forget my first serving of sashimi in Little Tokyo, or trying Salvadoran papusas at a small establishment in the Pico Union district. I thought I died and went to heaven when I first had Gulab Jamun at a popular Indian sweetshop, or my first bowl of Pad Thai noodles at one of LA's Thai restaurants - and there's so much more to speak of. There are few cuisines of the world that don't have a presence in LA, and I aim to try them all.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
I can get a suntan while doing plein air painting in the middle of winter.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
New York City.