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THE CITY of Bakersfield may stand tall in the fields of oil, the annals of country music and as the location of the largest number of Basque restaurants in the country, but its contribution to the world of art appears to be negligible. It bears a similar relation to the popular imagination of Los Angeles as Poughkeepsie does to Manhattan: that of a sleepy blue-collar backwater, often mocked by its larger and more sophisticated neighbor.

Once over the precipitous Grapevine one is in a different world, one that seems a lot further than 110 miles from Los Angeles. One emerges from the tule fog peculiar to the San Joachin Valley and finds oneself in a flat, low-slung city whose streets are arranged on a numerical and alphabetical grid. Were it not for the palm trees one could easily be in a Southern or Midwestern city, one with a similarly refreshing lack of pretension.

I headed straight to the Bakersfield Museum of Art, an expansive building on the edge of downtown. Of the five exhibits up, three of them were devoted to the predicament of the homeless. Laudable, it seemed, to confront provincial art lovers with images from which people generally avert their gaze.

The corridor was filled with the canvases of Pat Berger, who spent five years living in the neighborhood of LA's skid row in the '80s and recorded what she saw on large canvases. Another room was occupied by the unflinchingly compassionate photographs of Felix Adamo, a noted local artist who has been photographing the Bakersfield homeless for over 20 years; while the main gallery space was taken up by "Hobos to Street People," a comprehensive survey of paintings, photography and prints from the Depression to the present, which included works by such nationally renowned figures as Dorothea Lange, Kiki Smith and Eric Drooker. One obvious standout was Bay Area painter Christine Hanlon's Third Street Corridor, a beautifully executed oil in which a man pushes a shopping cart overloaded with flattened cardboard boxes across an empty shadow-drenched parking lot. Another was Sandow Birk's GI Homecoming, a grotesque parody of Norman Rockwell's Homecoming GI (1945), created specifically for the show, in which a hapless returning soldier with a metal leg is met with indifference, hostility and bafflement by the denizens of a rundown housing complex. It was a rich show dedicated to a subject that is usually as dismissed or downplayed in art as it is in politics.

A few blocks away, I passed through Bakersfield's actual skid row: one square block of desolation, oozing squalid menace, which houses several rundown residential hotels, a bar, a liquor store, a pawn shop, a porno theater, a street corner boxing gym and a tattoo parlor, in the doorway of which stood a haggard blonde wearing a studded belt that read "Fuck You."

Everything of interest seemed to be within walking distance. The walls of the Metro Gallery on 19th, which was preparing for a wedding reception, were covered with luridly impastoed floral paintings which looked like leftovers from a motel fire sale. Among the shells and simulacra the Kress building, the town's finest example of art deco architecture, has been turned into law offices, while the Woolworth's, with lunch counter intact, operates as an antique store.

The craze for replacing venerable old establishments with sanitized versions of their former selves in the interest of pumping life into decaying downtowns has arrived in Bakersfield in the form of a hotly anticipated multi-million dollar renovation that is expected to restore the 8-story Padre hotel to its rightful place as the heart and soul of the city. It has been bought by a San Diego developer and is set to reopen this month as a boutique hotel complete with upscale bars and restaurants, Bakersfield's own version of the Standard: a far cry from the days when eccentric hotelier Milton "Spartacus" Miller — who owned a beer-drinking horse and attended city council meetings dressed as Moses, complete with rod — erected the words "Alamo" and "Tombstone" in 30-foot-tall signs on the roof of the hotel, along with a mock missile aimed at city hall, in protest against an official order to upgrade the fire systems.

Around the corner from the Padre, directly across the street from the ornate Spanish Colonial Fox theater, Surface, probably the city's most adventurous gallery, was packed for the Friday night opening of a community art project: a sort of pictorial chain letter in which 27 local artists created a narrative that spanned the walls. The diverse crowd included graying ladies in ankle-length tie-dye dresses, soccer moms, bartenders and Goths, many of whom also produce art; and the sumptuous gastronomic spread on offer put the stingy fare available at most LA openings to shame. Piano music drifted through the room, courtesy of a teenage prodigy named Genavieve Anderson, who performed her own compositions on a portable grand, her musical stylings evincing a melancholia far beyond her 17 years.

Surface's young owners, Vikki Cruz and Yvonne Cavanagh, are both returning natives who have moved back after graduating from big city art schools, with the intention of investing in the future of their home town. Despite the economy, they have already had several sold-out shows and express the hope that other young gallerists will follow their lead.

On the way back to my car I was lured down an alley by the flashing neon cat tail outside Guthrie's Alley Cat. The interiors of businesses emblazoned by ornate neon signs often disappoint once inside, but not this one. As well as being an imperishable 70-year-old Bakersfield institution with a long wooden bar, Victorian flocked velvet wallpaper, a loaded jukebox and a very spirited clientele, it contains a gorgeous mural of a rainy night downtown street scene that covers a wall in the pool room. It was painted in 1977 by Bruce Hebron, a local art teacher, and captures the alley as it was back then, with the Padre at one end of it with "Spartacus" Miller's defiant missile on the roof. As the genial bartender pointed out to me, the painting is riddled with myriad local significances: The light in one of the Padre windows indicates the last address of a former Alley Cat owner, who died there. The cabbie was a customer and all the cars in the now-vanished parking lot belonged to patrons who drew numbers from a hat in order to have their cars included in the mural. It's one of the best bar murals anywhere, in a town with a growing art community whose reputation as a cultural wasteland might well be belied by a visit. ■

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Interior of Guthrie's Alley Cat, mural by Bruce Hebron; photo by John Tottenham
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