Eden Found, Eden Lost, Eden Regained.
In the Beginning
My first visual of the Pomona Valley was from a Cessna 172. It was 1987. My father was flying us from Long Beach to Fallbrook. The flight path was a direct line from the ocean to the mountains where we hung a right and followed the 10 Freeway south.As we approached the San Gabriel Mountains I watched the ground dissolve in the toxic air. The brown haze became thicker and thicker as we got closer to the foothills. Along the foothills the air was opaque and the ground was no longer visible. From our elevation I looked northwest toward Los Angeles and saw the brown tributaries flowing out of the city and merging into the solid brown river of dirty air that flowed along the foothills. The river of air clung to the contours of the hills the same way water follows the contours of the land. We in turn followed the river as it entered the gateway at Kellogg Hill and curved through what I now know as the Pomona Valley. Today I often hear an echo of that memory whenever I commute back to my home in the Pomona Valley.
History of Valley
The history of the Pomona Valley started long before the orange, but the romantic image of paradise is intimately linked with the “sunkissed” golden fruit. By the mid 1880s the railroad connected Pomona Valley with the East Coast. In 1887 the Pomona Land & Water Company sold lots to 5000 dreamers. Pomona, dedicated to the Roman goddess of fruit, promised a better life in an urban garden. Land! A home in a land of plenty - that was the promise. Olives, grapes, apricots, figs and walnuts were each part of the early agrarian development of the Valley. However it was the mutant from Brazil, the Washington Navel that would make the definitive imprint. Successive waves of Mexican, Japanese and Chinese families who were looking for economic opportunities as well as meeting the need for cheap labor immigrated to the Valley, thus contributing to the racial and ethnic diversity that is a hallmark of the Valley.
Russell Pitzer, an early Pomona entrepreneur and later philanthropist, was at one time the largest individual citrus grove owner in California. As early as 1913 he saw the future and began purchasing grove property. The first subdivisions started in the 1920s but then increased dramatically after World War II. Citrus was king through the turn of the century but by World War II was of little value economically. However the legacy of the groves persisted into the 60s and even now in small lots hidden behind industrial plants or adjacent to clusters of tract homes you can find weathered, blackened trees heroically producing stunted, bitter fruit. It wasn’t just the market decline, disease or the brown air flowing from Los Angeles that toppled the citrus empire. Tract homes mushroomed among the former groves because the postwar industrial explosion in Los Angeles created a huge demand for new bedroom communities.
A subtle irony, more readily perceived from today’s perspective, is the narrative embedded in the promotion used by the real estate developers. In language that harked back to the promoters of the1880s, the returning G.I.s, along with the hundreds of thousands who turned west toward “El Dorado,” were given the promise of paradise in a carnie pitch of a home nestled amongst fragrant orange blossoms. While attempts were made to create “planned” communities with greenbelts and parks the effects of rising employment demands, rapid transportation, businesses providing cheap goods and services eventually choked the dream. Roads and freeways bisected the land and workers were forced to commute. Subdivision after subdivision of tract homes, strip malls and light industrial warehouses spread across the Valley. Eden disappeared.
As early as the sixteenth century the American landscape had been interpreted as a metaphor for the Biblical landscape and was identified as the site of the promised millennium. Christians saw the New World as the Promised Land, and then by creating the image of California as an extension of that idea (El Dorado, the Golden Land) Christians kept pushing Eden westward. Keeping it just beyond reach, preserving its mythic qualities and moving via “manifest destiny” across the U.S., “ever westward” became essential to the psychic, mythic structure of the American dream. However, like Moses, they could “see” but never arrive because of course the reality could never fulfill the promise. Eden is always just out of sight, around the next corner, over the next mountain but can never be realized. However for those who take the time and reflect or meditate, comes the understanding that Eden is never found outside but rather discovered through either spiritual or psychological practices; that peace, harmony and balance is what you make, not what can be found.
Meditation on Place
The exhibition East In Eden is about the idea of ‘place,’ a particular place – the Pomona Valley. By naming a place we define it, giving it boundaries. Though artificial, naming marks the landscape, framing it.
Every place has its narrative. How we collect and interpret from our past, the narratives we choose to endorse, profoundly affect how our present is created. “We take our measure of being from what surrounds us, and what surrounds us is always, to some extent, of our own making” (Harrison, 349). While Harrison is referring to physical entities such as architecture or the constructed geography of exurbia (1), I would include memory. Memory is at the very core of representation. It is how we create meaning for our communities. However as Edward Said observes, memory is not something that sits inertly there for each person to possess and contain (somehow inviolably stable) but is something active, malleable and multifaceted. Memory and sensual, tactile experience are conflated and interdependent, never more so than when considering one’s own community.
Seeing a place, especially if such a place is new to our experiences, and knowing a place are very different cognitive functions. We can gather abstract facts about a place quickly and artists are quite facile at capturing visual nuances of a place, but, as Yi-Fu Tuan says, “…the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire.” One’s deeper knowledge of a place, “… is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and un-dramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunsets, of work and play.” (Tuan,183)
This exhibition’s intent is to examine the Pomona Valley through the perceptions, memories and experiences of its artists. We all experience the world directly through our senses however we retain those experiences via memory and memory is constructed by visual and textual language. One of the gifts of artists is the ability to articulate these subtle human experiences and to present them, to share them with their community. What I have asked of the artists in East of Eden is to present images of ‘place.’ The exhibition is a collective, composite portrait, a mirror that presents to the whole community an image, a collage, a mosaic of their home. All the artists in the exhibit live and/or work in the Valley. Most have done so for a long time. Some have connections that date back two or three generations. Their aggregated experiences are the primary resources for this exhibition.
As I said above, ‘place’ is defined by its boundaries. These frames can be physical topography, e.g. the Pomona Valley is defined by the San Gabriel Mountains starting at the Kellogg pass in Pomona and ending with the pass at Corona, or subjective, man-made grids surveyed onto the landscape, e.g. roads, city limits. Some are the result of consensus and through repeated use become acceptable borders for a place, e.g. territory claimed by a gang or an area where oranges grow or black bears roam. Landscape, while potentially infinite, is bound by our own perceptual and perhaps conceptual limitations. If these limits, as defined by sensual limitations, can be seen as the outside of ‘place,’ then naturally the inside edge is determined by our own bodies.
To those who still indulge in the Cartesian split, the body would be the ‘place’ for our mind. But whether you start with the mind or recognize that the body and mind are the same, there is a radiating organic concentricity spreading out from you as the center. You could envision yourself as being in a room, a room in a house, a house in a neighborhood, in a city, a state – our understanding of each successive place getting progressively simpler and more general. But we aren’t in a place as some object stuffed in a box but rather living within, indeed through that place - by your presence you are a part of a place and in turn you act upon it. The artists of the Pomona Valley, as artists everywhere, are affected by the place in which they find themselves. It’s the quality of the air, the light, one’s history with the region, one’s social interactions, how you speak to others and how they speak to you. These and much more define content and context for the artists’ lives and in turn provide the same for the art they create. This reciprocity serves to ‘implace’ (2) each artist uniquely, to anchor and orient, to ultimately make the Valley an integral part of each artist’s identity.
Meditation on Representation, Landscape & Being in the World
As I’ve said, the intention of this exhibition is to present a portrait of the Pomona Valley but there is no way that any one artist’s view or work or even a body of work, given each artist’s particular subjectivity, can represent the Valley. However, I believe in the possibilities of the collective. Each artist presents a distinct view or portrait so that the whole, forming a metaphoric gestalt, will communicate some of the diversity and potentialities, to give a clearer more comprehensive portrait of the Valley.
It should come as no surprise that many of the artists have used traditional forms or some derivative of landscape to create their portraits. However there is some ineffable element about an actual landscape that resists representation. A landscape is kinetic and at a conceptual level is infinite. The truth of a landscape won’t be found in a meticulous copy. I believe it requires an interpenetration of the landscape with the subjectivity of the artist. To represent the landscape the artist must first frame it by their experiences, anticipation and intention. They must stand inside the landscape in the deeper sense of “being in the world.”
“To know a region is also to be able to remember it… only through memory is knowledge of an entire region sustained” (Casey, 2002, 76). The artists in this exhibition have lived the Valley. They have looked at multiple aspects/angles and poked their heads into unseen nooks and ignored crannies. They are a part of its history. To represent a landscape adequately or, in my more expansive definition, a portrait of the valley, (a portrait beyond a casual glimpse, a snapshot - especially when considered within the spatial and temporal scale of the Valley), the artists must draw upon their memories of the totality of their disparate experiences if they are going to capture both the essence and the complexity of the Valley. It is this subjectivity of theartists that plays so deeply in the representation of a place. To represent, as “Hip-Hop” has defined it, is to speak from and for the community in which one identifies as belonging to and not simply to re-present an imitation or a copy of a landscape or cityscape. Nor is it to insert the viewer into the vantage point of the artist (like on a map or sign that says, “you are here”).
In the paragraph above I suggest that representation derives from our personal experience, our own perceptions and memories but we should not rely solely on those subjective frames of reference. We are always in a place and that place is determined, is framed, by the objective reality of matter and by our inter-relational position between self and the objective world. We come to know ourselves by other’s attention to us just as we acknowledge the presence and reality of others by our attention to them. “Reality” is not locked within, nor wholly on the outside. It is relational and interdependent. The world is presented to all of us collectively. There is indeed interpretation but always there is a solid reality from which these interpretations emerge.
Every place is viewed from almost infinite points of references. Experienced, interpreted, explained, represented, each true to and for the individual but in turn experienced as a different truth by others who share the place. The meaning of a place then becomes conflation of these diverse interpretations. Representations, whether as language or art, are utterances of these interpretations. As we each speak to one another, asking for a response, we collect and develop a consensus. Place does not exist outside of us but exists because of us. Place changes our nature, just as we change the nature of place.
1. “Exurbia” is a term coined by Urban Planners to refer to the areas beyond a city’s immediate suburban geography. The residential and industrial spread beyond the suburban that intersects in a mutually hostile interdependence with the rural and natural landscape.
2. “Implacement” is an ongoing cultural process with an experimental edge. It acculturates whatever ingredients it borrows from the natural world, whether these ingredients are bodies or landscapes or ordinary “things.” See Casey, Getting Back, first chapter “Implacement” P 3 - 21.
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