Legendary muralist Judy Baca's early 70's 'La Pachuca' series is among the pieces on view at the 'Valley Girl Redefined' exhibit in Glendale. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
Artist, musician and poet Rain Lucien Matheke is about as far from the typical Valley Girl stereotype as one can get. That’s because when her family moved to the sprawling San Fernando Valley from Pennsylvania when she was a kid about 25 years ago, she was identified by others as a boy.
“I have tried to come out as a trans woman since I could talk, even before I understood what that was,” says Matheke, speaking at a small table with a group of other artists at the palatial Brand Library and Art Center perched in the picturesque foothills above north Glendale.
Matheke’s writing and multimedia art work takes on gender identity, mortality and her own struggles with illness and depression. She’s among the artists spotlighted in the Valley Girl Redefined exhibit presented by curators Erin Stone and Addy Gonzales-Renteria of 11:11 A Creative Collective.
Wearing an olive-green sweater, matching green hair and speaking with a slight but distinct ‘Val’ twang, Matheke, though assigned a male gender at birth, does identify as a Valley Girl.
“I mean I have to right? Like listen to the way I talk, sure. But like, you know, I’m far more than my ability to consume,” she laughs.
"Encino is like soo bitchin' There's like the Galleria And like all these like really great shoe stores I love going into like clothing stores and stuff I like buy the neatest mini-skirts and stuff It's like so bitchin'..."
-"Valley Girl" (1982) Frank & Moon Zappa
Mindless consumerism, preferably at a mall in Glendale or Encino, is part of the stereotype set loose on the world via Frank and daughter Moon Zappa’s 1982 hit song and as a stock character in tons of TV shows and teen movies, like “Clueless” and the 1983 surprise box office hit “Valley Girl” (both of which were coincidentally directed by women).
The Valley Girl that was introduced to the world nearly 40 years ago remains, for better or worse, a stubbornly long lasting Southern California pop culture icon. One that comes with a lot of baggage, say some of the roughly two dozen San Fernando Valley-based artists invited to participate in the Glendale exhibit.
The typical Valley Girl was and is typically seen as a skinny, slang talking, dim-witted suburban white girl obsessed with boys, shoe sales and toenail polish. That's despite the fact that the Valley, which includes the cities of Burbank, Glendale and North L.A., is home to one of the most racially and economically diverse populations in the region.
Photographer Monica Sandoval has mixed feelings about Valley Girl identity. On one hand, she loved to do a lot of the stuff that the cliche "Val" loved to do.
But Sandoval also shatters the archetype. She’s Latina for one. And perhaps most subversively of all — at least when it comes to the Valley Girl ideal — Sandoval is, in her own words, "fat."
“Growing up, the Valley Girl was always something like a caricature, just something funny,” says Sandoval. “But it totally influenced the way I would see myself in the mirror. Not liking the size of my body or my face. Because I didn’t fit into that stereotype of the Valley Girl.”
Sandoval’s vivid, large format photograph "Together Again" commands the Brand’s main gallery space. The carefully staged image riffs on the old Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme.
In it, Sandoval is face down in the foreground. Her body is mysteriously sprawled out in front of an ivy-covered brick wall. A viewer may wonder, did she fall? Was she pushed? Sandoval wears a revealing one-piece bathing suit and lies atop a squashed bed of riotously colorful flowers, her legs twisted up behind her.
Her face is turned away from the camera, but she doesn't hide her body. Not anymore, she says. Her bare back, legs and arms are exposed to the viewer.
“Once I started to own it, that opened up doors for people to talk to me about their own fears of their own bodies, (and) show the world its OK to be whatever you want to be,” says Sandoval.
Conceptual video maker Michelle Nunes admits a little Valley Girl exists in her too. But her work goes beyond the San Fernando Valley to take on cornerstones of American identity and culture: junk food, patriotism and guns.
“Just take these kind of gluttonous and unsafe acts that we just have embedded in our society, and I’m going to put them together in one video.”
In her six-minute video Little Liberty, the camera zooms in tight on Nunes’ face as she force-feeds herself marshmallows. As she tries to choke those down, she also tries to choke out directions for how to install a bump stock on a firearm, similar to the kind used by the Las Vegas mass shooter in 2017.
The action is punctuated by explosions of fireworks, Nunes’ voice slightly sped up to sound like a child because, she says, it’s children who can be disproportionately be affected by gun violence.
“You can still participate in this (gun) culture that is allowing this to happen and I was like, 'this is madness,'" she says. "It really (is) just this never-ending cycle of a depletion of life and then we’re just going to consume more of this tradition.”
Another recent mass shooting, just months ago at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Ventura County, also plays into a large installation by Rain Matheke.
She fabricated a faux mausoleum wall complete with dried flowers and grave markers. Talking inside the gallery, with the sound of chimes drifting in from an adjacent installation, Matheke says the work, a series dubbed "Confessional Haikus," was partly inspired by the murder of Noel Sparks, a 21-year-old student who was killed in the Borderline massacre. She was an art student at Moorpark College near Thousand Oaks where Matheke also works.
“We had a memorial for her and (afterward) I rescued some of the flowers from the trash. And she was an aspiring artist,” says Matheke.
But instead of names on the copper grave markers, Matheke instead engraved each with a different haiku that reflects her own Valley Girl identity.
“This is probably my favorite,” says Matheke, peering closely at her handiwork.
“'How can I be real, when I am half dead, and half disassociated,'” she reads.
“Like that’s how I start my day,” she laughs.
Matheke also lives with a rare, life-threatening immune deficiency disease that requires monthly blood transfusions and can leave her physically and mentally exhausted.
But she says as a trans woman, this exhibit has rejuvenated her.
“To be, like, approached to participate in the show, I felt visible. Not even just as a woman but as a human,” she says. “And that was, like, really profound.”
"Valley Girl Redefined," curated by Erin Stone and Addy Gonzales-Renteria of 11:11 Creative Collective, is on view at the Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale through March 22. Curators hope to stage a second exhibition later this year.