Jan 2013 report | January 2013 / Art LTD. | Los Angeles: LA’s Historic Murals Get A Welcome Facelift
Last October, David Alfaro Siqueiros’ mural América Tropical (1932) was unveiled after a $10 million restoration funded by the City of Los Angeles and the Getty Conservation Institute. The Los Angeles mural, located on the upper level of a building in the El Pueblo district, had been whitewashed over—literally—eight years after it was created. It was considered too leftist. The central figure was a crucified peon, a comment on imperialist oppression of the poor and dispossessed.
Today the whitewash has been carefully removed, and the work is once again available for public viewing. Nearby there’s also the new América Tropical Interpretive Center, with exhibits about the mural’s history and conservation process.
Los Angeles is famous for its murals, and there are other important ongoing attempts to save them. Much of the effort has been spearheaded by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. “These are our open-air museums, which we see every single day,” says Isabel Rojas-Williams, the Conservancy’s executive director. “Over a million people a day drive by and see our murals.” She’s referring to the Olympic Freeway Murals, commissioned for the 1984 Olympics from ten artists and situated along the busy Hollywood Freeway, also known as the 101.
Most LAmurals are homegrown, by area artists who depict the people and culture of the neighborhood or city. The ones in and around downtown are especially celebrated. There’s the grouping around the building that was formerly Victor’s Clothing Company at 242 S. Broadway. They tower five to six stories high and include Kent Twitchell’s Bride and Groom (1972), showing a bride and groom handsomely outfitted for their wedding (and of course advertising for the store when it was in business), and Eloy Torres’ The Pope of Broadway (1985), a salute to Mexican American actor Anthony Quinn. The murals aren’t limited to downtown; on the other side of town, in Venice, there are longstanding murals off the boardwalk. One iconicwall painting is Venice Reconstituted (1989) by Rip Cronk. It shows a stretch of the colorful boardwalk and a roller skater with curly long blond tresses, a witty take-off of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Suchmurals are somuch part of the cityscape that they’re often taken for granted, but they have been eroding quickly due to weather, earthquake, and vandalism. For a while they were off-limits to taggers, but about 15 years ago, signs and symbols began covering up themurals. Caltrans owns the Freeway Murals, and once tried dealing with the problem by painting over the graffiti, which also covered up the murals. This led to at least one lawsuit from an artist.
When Rojas-Williams took charge of the Conservancy in April 2011, dealing with the Freeway Murals was a priority. “I’ve been involved in this type of work for 30 years,” she says. “As a volunteer, as a student, as a scholar. My thesis was about three great Mexican muralists— Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros—to graffiti art.” She studied at Cal State Los Angeles, and later taught art history there. The Mural Conservancy was founded in 1987 by a coalition of artists, advocates, and activists with the mission “to restore, preserve, and document the murals of Los Angeles.” With a happy smile, Rojas-Williams calls it a perfect job fit. The Freeway Murals were in various states of disrepair, she says, and she sought out the original artists to bring them into the planning process. “I already knew the muralists, so it was easy for me to contact them.” Then they had to raise money to do the needed work. They obtained grants and donations from various sources, including the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the California African American Museum, and the artist RETNA. For their first project, they contracted the cleaning and restoration of the two facing Kent Twitchell murals, with Jim Morphesis on one side and Lita Albuquerque on the other. Both had been completely covered with graffiti. After that, they worked on Glenna Avila’s LA Freeway Kids, showing a line of exuberantly running, hopping, skipping children. That was just completed in November. (For before and after photos, viewers can visit the Conservancy’s website, www.muralconservancy.org.)
Currently, the group is beginning work on Frank Romero’s Going to the Olympics. Spanning 22-feet high and 103-feet long, the mural is on the Hollywood Freeway (101) North, between Alameda and San Pedro Street. In Romero’s vibrant signature style, the mural depicts a row of happy-looking cars, a heart above each, and palm trees and mountains in the background. While already once restored, the mural has weathered the California sun and taggers. For the new restoration, the Conservancy selected Willie Herrón, a well-known artist in his own right—he’s an original member of the artist collective Asco, featured in “Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective” at LACMA last year. He’s also been working on murals for decades.
The Conservancy is also involved in advocacy work and in maintaining an online database of the city’s murals, founded on Robin Dunitz’ book, Street Gallery: Guide to 1000 Los Angeles Murals, the first major compilation of these works. It’s a valuable record of who did what when, with some history behind the murals, and it also provides links to working artists. —SCARLET CHENG
LOS ANGELES: LA’s HISTORIC MURALS GET A WELCOME FACELIFT
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“Pope of Broadway,” 1985, Eloy Torres Photo: Ian Robertson-Salt (2011)
Courtesy The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles