Category: Public art

Kent Twitchell: The End of Muralism?

On May 1st, 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that famed L.A. muralist Kent Twitchell settled his lawsuit against the U.S. government for obliterating his six-story mural depiction of artist Ed Ruscha. Starting in 1978, it took Twitchell nine years to complete his mural on an outside wall of the L.A. headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2006 the mural was deliberately painted over by a maintenance crew working for the government.

Federal and state laws protect commissioned murals in the City of Los Angeles from desecration or destruction; specifically, the federal Visual Artists Rights Act states that an artist must be given a ninety day notice before a building owner can paint over a mural. Twitchell received no such notice before his mural was arbitrarily destroyed, so he’s been awarded a $1.1 million settlement. To date it is the largest settlement to have been paid out to an artist under state or federal laws meant to protect artist’s rights – and I won’t hesitate to say that Twitchell fully deserves the money. I first heard of his mural being destroyed the day it happened, and without delay I called the L.A. arts community to his defense, so it’s gratifying to learn of Twitchell’s court victory – which also bodes well for all other muralists and artists creating public art across the country.

I met Twitchell a short while after the destruction of his mural, when photographer Gil Ortiz and I visited his Playa Vista, California studio in August of 2006 – hence much of what follows is based upon the chat I had with Twitchell during that visit. He was affable and friendly, revealing his feelings concerning the destruction of his Ed Ruscha mural, his life as an artist, and his views regarding the state of art in America today. No doubt Twitchell was irate over the destruction of his mural, but he possessed a clear-headed understanding of the social implications of his next move – a lawsuit against the U.S. government. At the time Twitchell told me; “I don’t want to blow this thing, I could hurt other artists if I blow this thing. I’ve got to make them know that they can’t just paint out a work of art just because they feel like it – there’s a law that they have to follow… they can paint it out, they can do whatever they want to it, they just have to be polite about it, but they were not.”

Known for his monumental works, I asked Twitchell if he ever created small scale artworks. “It’s a lot easier for me to work at least life-size. A lot of times when I work small I don’t pull it off, maybe two out of three times it’s ok. If I work life-size or bigger then almost everything I do I like.” Then he went bounding off to the second story of his studio to rustle through his archives. He returned with a portfolio of original sketches and lithographs that were delicately wrapped in acid free paper for purposes of preservation. Some of the drawings were of individuals that appear in his massive 405 Freeway mural, L.A. Marathon, a work that celebrates the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but is unfortunately now damaged by graffiti. The drawings were composed of tightly woven crosshatched lines, the work of a highly skilled and disciplined draftsman. Twitchell chuckled and said “Sometimes I draw this way, not because it’s better, but because I’m obsessive compulsive – that’s who I am.”

Kent Twitchell in his studio, 2006 - Photo by Gil Ortiz

[ Kent Twitchell in his studio, 2006 – Photo by Gil Ortiz. Twitchell holds his lithograph of artist Lita Albuquerque. ]

Amongst the portfolio’s drawings and prints there was an amazing portrait of artist Lita Albuquerque. The lithograph was immediately recognizable as a print version of the huge Lita Albuquerque mural Twitchell painted alongside L.A.’s Harbor Freeway in 1983. I mentioned to him that I had just recently driven past the mural, and that it was almost completely destroyed by graffiti, to which Twitchell replied “I won’t have to repaint it because she’s so protected, all of that graffiti will come right off without damaging the original painting.” He then began explaining the process used to protect his street murals; “First there’s a type of wax that’s applied to the surface, followed by a coating of anti-graffiti material”, but Twitchell is well aware that restoration of a damaged mural is a relatively simple matter – and that a far bigger problem lies ahead for L.A. murals. Once restored to pristine condition they will immediately be defaced by graffiti taggers who respect nothing but their own trivial notoriety. Twitchell’s Albuquerque mural is still in situ, but as of this writing it’s completely buried under layers of graffiti – only Albuquerque’s eyes peer out from behind the shroud of spray paint vandalism.

Looking at Twitchell’s vast body of work, it’s easy to see that he has a passion for realism in painting, yet I wouldn’t call him a photo-realist. In spite of the fact that he uses modern techniques and equipment in his mural making, Twitchell is very much a traditionalist whose influences range from the Old Masters to Salvador Dali – he confided in me; “I want to paint one of my heroes, Grant Wood, the great American regionalist painter, who just tweaked the New York art establishment. He used to wear bib overalls – a brilliant man, went to Paris, learned about Modernism – he could do it as well as anybody, but he went back to Iowa and continued as a regionalist painter with Hicks, Benton, and the others – and he did it on purpose. So unpretentious, and that’s what art needs – unpretentiousness.”

A close up examination of Twitchell’s paintings reveals, not brush strokes, but tiny fields of pure color. He equates this to the Pointillism of French artist George Seurat, but notes that Seurat accomplished his paintings by using “pure colors, while I use values.” For all intents and purposes the outlines of Twitchell’s murals look like an extremely complicated paint by numbers drawing, but by stepping back just a few feet, the crazy quilt patchwork of values becomes a sharp focused realistic portrait.

Los Angeles has a deeply rooted tradition of public murals, from 1930s works by the likes of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Hugo Ballin, Dean Cornwell, and those artists working for the Works Progress Administration – to the late 1960s mural renaissance that sprang from the Chicano and African American social movements. However, the forward thinking community based activism that served as a catalyst for the city’s mural movement utterly collapsed decades ago – only to be replaced by a nihilistic apolitical narcissism that is daily expressed in graffiti vandalism.

At present some of L.A.’s murals have been destroyed outright, most others have fallen into a state of disrepair, and all are threatened by graffiti, especially outdoor murals located at street level. Scores of graffiti scarred murals are now simply beyond restoration. The L.A. Daily News addressed the issue in a 2007 article titled L.A.’s street murals disappearing, framing the problem in the following manner; “Once the mural capital of the world, Los Angeles has quietly surrendered that distinction to Philadelphia over the past five years. While the City of Brotherly Love spends $4.5 million to paint, restore and maintain its 2,700 murals, the City of Angels has just $20,000 to look after its documented murals, which once numbered 3,000. Artists say 60 percent of them – about 1,800 – now are either gone for good or have been nearly obliterated by tagging and vandalism.”

In 2006 I asked Twitchell what he thought about the state of the L.A. muralist movement and his answer was blunt, “The muralist movement is dead.” That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but any impartial observer would have to agree. The L.A. Times article that reported on Twitchell’s mural settlement quoted him as saying; “What’s really discouraging about most public art is the way that, in this city of ours, spray paint vandalism has kind of taken over the streets. What was once the mural capital is now the graffiti capital – although I don’t call it graffiti, I call it spray paint vandalism. We cannot coexist.”

I’m sure there are those who assume Twitchell is now “set for life” because of his settlement with the government, and that he can now retire to the lap of luxury. He is under no obligation to continue being a productive artist, and with his murals coming under attack from every direction, some would ask why doesn’t he just give up. That would be a complete misreading of the artistic spirit. Twitchell has devoted his life’s work to muralism, and knowing his devotion to the art, it’s a certainty he’d much rather have his mural of Ed Ruscha standing in pristine condition than to be awarded a cash settlement – no matter how large. Twitchell’s admonition that muralists “cannot coexist” with graffiti vandals is more an avowal to stand firm than it is a statement of surrender, and in the effort to re-establish the tradition of community based murals – I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with the muralists.

Street Art: McCain, Police and Thieves

Police and Thieves oh yeah!

[ Police and Thieves – Anonymous street poster, 2008. ]

I spotted this anonymous street art poster of Republican presidential candidate John McCain in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles. The title of the poster, Police and Thieves, comes from a Jamaican reggae hit written by Junior Murvin in 1976 and popularized further in a 1977 punk version by The Clash. Rebuking gang violence and police brutality, the lyrics chide: “Police and thieves in the street, Oh yeah!, Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition. (….) No one stop it in anyway, And all the peacemaker turn war officer, Hear what I say – Police, police, police and thieves oh yeah!”

Rambo the Future of Street Art?

For the last month or so, posters that look as if they were made from stencils have been appearing on city streets from Los Angeles to New York City. Giving the impression of having been created with black spray-paint and a cut-out template, the grim face on the poster is imperfect with its fuzzy edges and runny paint drips. The image looks like a thousand other stencil visual renderings you’ve seen on urban walls and sidewalks. However, the red stenciled letters make it clear this is not social commentary from an underground artist. The street poster’s minimalist message reads: “Stallone. Rambo. In Theaters January 25.”

Rambo IV poster on the streets of Los Angeles

[ Rambo IV poster on the streets of Los Angeles. ]

While the promotional drive for Rambo IV began with faux stencil posters placed directly on city streets, it quickly escalated into a flood of posters used on the sides of buses and on illuminated bus benches as the release date of the film drew closer. That bilge like Rambo IV can be publicized through “guerilla marketing” does not bode well for the future of street art. This is certainly not the first instance of street art aesthetics being used for commercial purposes, but the campaign for Stallone’s film unquestionably represents a sophisticated and well co-coordinated expansion of the trend.

The motivations of those who use the street for art and the promulgation of ideas is very different from those who want to capture every available public space as a platform for marketing products. While some artists have been handsomely rewarded for selling their supposed “street cred” to corporate advertisers, others resist turning over the methods and influence of street art to commercial branding and big business. It is my fervent hope that the implacable anticommercial forces will win this, and every other battle, in the new year.

The Victims of Communism Memorial

Washington D.C. has a new public monument, the Victims of Communism Memorial. The 10-foot high bronze is a replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” statue carried by heroic Chinese dissidents in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square just prior to their being shot by Chinese soldiers in June, 1989. Designed by American sculptor Thomas Marsh, the diminutive carbon copy statue sits in a small park within view of the nation’s capital, and on June 12th, 2007, President Bush dedicated the memorial before a crowd of 1,000 people. When I first saw photos of the dedication event I thought it was an Onion magazine parody.

In an interview conducted by the conservative National Review magazine, Thomas Marsh revealed that he took no fee for the creation of the bronze, stating that “(….) when I witnessed the brutalities (via television and print news) of the Tiananmen massacre, I vowed to rebuild the statue, and to never profit from that act. I feel it is wrong to make money from human suffering.” The artist went on to say that, “I feel the emerging primary role of art in human life will be personal and social transformation. I view the Democracy statue as a moving example of this kind of art. It certainly was not an act of self-expression.”

Artist’s concept drawing of the memorial

[ Artist’s concept drawing of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington D.C. ]

I could almost have said those very words myself, save for the fact that Marsh’s statements masquerade as artistic objectivity and disguise a rightist agenda. And herein lay the conundrum, can one easily distinguish between a genuine work of art utilized as an honest, solemn memorial, and an artwork that functions purely as political propaganda? Let’s take Maya Lin’s breathtaking Vietnam Veterans Memorial as an example of the former. It simply does not allow a single political viewpoint to lay claim to it – Lin’s granite wall serves as a poignant memorial for all who gaze upon it – opponents and supporters of the Vietnam war alike. Conversely, Marsh’s reworked “Goddess of Democracy” sculpture is the closed fist to Maya Lin’s open hand. Marsh’s bronze draws a line in the sand and dares you to cross it. There is no self-reflection in the sculpture, just a demand that the viewer adhere to its “correct” ideological reading of history. Like all works of propaganda it is triumphalist – especially so when considering who commissioned it.

Marsh’s statue was commissioned by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOCMF), and it should come as no surprise that George W. Bush is the Honorary Chairman of that foundation. Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow at the ultra-right wing Heritage Foundation, is the VOCMF’s Chairman. Edwards hypothesizes that 100 million people died in “the communist holocaust.” Has anyone bothered to ask Edwards how he arrived at this number? The influential militant conservative Grover Glenn Norquist serves as the VOCMF’s Director. Norquist is the fellow responsible for infamously saying that he wants to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” (excluding of course any program to do with the military or the national security state.)

And then of course there’s Paul M. Weyrich, Chairman and CEO of the right-wing Free Congress Foundation. A backer of the VOCMF, he explained in a 2003 press statement in support of the anti-communist memorial about our needing “to hear the stories of the millions of victims who suffered and were put to death by a truly Godless regime” – as if that story hadn’t already been drummed into our heads for decades. Weyrich is also the gentleman who notoriously stated that “We are different from previous generations of conservatives…We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of this country.”

In his interview with the National Review, Marsh said of his sculpture, “The Democracy statue is unambiguous in its meaning: It stands for man against the State. Specifically, it stood and stands for man against the most brutal tyranny ever devised, communism.” Hmmm… “man against the State.” But the VOCMF was established by a 1993 Act of the United States Congress, the same congress that now trips all over itself to help establish and expand American corporate investment in the People’s Republic of China (PRC.) It all rings rather hollow when you stop to think that Wal-Mart, KFC, Coca-Cola, General Motors and hundreds of other U.S. corporations are presently doing business in the PRC.

The following words come from the transcript of President Bush’s speech at the dedication ceremonies: “The sheer numbers of those killed in Communism’s name are staggering, so large that a precise count is impossible. According to the best scholarly estimate, Communism took the lives of tens of millions of people in China and the Soviet Union, and millions more in North Korea, Cambodia, Africa, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and other parts of the globe.” Of course, the bureaucrats in Beijing heard about the memorial and Bush’s brash words, and they issued a strongly worded statement that in part read: “Some US political forces still cling to their ‘Cold War’ mentality and out of political necessity seek to provoke conflicts between different ideologies and social systems. This runs counter to the trend of the times and is unpopular.”

But the dedication of the latest memorial in the U.S. capital seemed less about the “victims of communism” and more an opportunity to push Washington’s newest crusade – “the war against terror.” At the dedication, the president said, “Like the communists, the followers of violent Islamic radicalism are doomed to fail. By remaining steadfast in freedom’s cause, we will ensure that a future American president does not have to stand in a place like this and dedicate a memorial to the millions killed by the radicals and extremists of the 21st century.” And as you might expect, no American will be counted amongst the extremists of the 21st century, but sadly there will be a memorial dedicated to the thousands of American soldiers who died because of a politician’s lie.

Excuse me for being contrarian and bringing up embarrassing facts, but for those who’ll cringe over what I’m about to say, you can always dismiss my quarrelsome nature by quoting the illustrious wisdom of Ronald Reagan – “Facts are stupid things.” And the fact of the matter is, the reds were not the only ones doing the killing. The good folks at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation have compiled quite a record that chronicles “communism’s crimes against humanity” – they just forgot to include what the other side did.

I can’t offer a full accounting of what evils the good guys committed in order to stop the advance of communism, that is after all, not the purpose of this web log. But some distressing episodes do come to mind, like the 1965 U.S. backed coup d’état against President Sukarno of Indonesia. The U.S. cold war establishment viewed Sukarno as a threat that had to be eliminated, and so unleashed the anti-communist generals of the Indonesian army – who began a bloodbath that resulted in some half a million Indonesians being put to death for purely political reasons. A 1968 report by the CIA referred to the butchery as, “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.” But there’s no real need to be troubled by those mass executions, every last man, woman and child were dirty reds – or so we’ve been told. And in any case, we did it because we love liberty, so the victims will not receive a memorial statue.

As an example of communist barbarity, President Bush mentioned in his speech the heartbreaking tale of the unfortunate “Polish priest named Father Popieluszko, who made his Warsaw church a sanctuary for the Solidarity underground, and was kidnapped, and beaten, and drowned in the Vitsula by the secret police.” But Bush made no mention of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 by U.S. funded right-wing death squads as he gave a homily in Church. Because of his concern for the poor, Monseñor Romero was called a communist by El Salvador’s right-wing elites, who marked him for death. Even the murdered Archbishop’s funeral was attacked by U.S. trained Salvadoran army sharpshooters, who succeeded in killing dozens of unarmed mourners.

There is another fine chapter in our brave fight against the reds that begs for the raising of a large memorial in the U.S. capital – and that has to do with the U.S. engineered coup against the government of Chile. On September 11th, 1973, U.S. backed generals lead by Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup against the first democratically elected Marxist head of state, Salvador Allende. President Allende died in the fighting when the putschists bombed the presidential palace. Subsequently, General Pinochet proclaimed himself the leader of the country and imprisoned and tortured his opponents. Over 3,000 innocent Chileans are known to have been murdered by Pinochet’s terror squads, and thousands of others were simply “disappeared” and remain unaccounted for. But of course, this was all done in the name of fighting communism – so it was a good thing.

On September 21, 1976, a terrorist car bomb on the streets of Washington D.C., took the lives of Orlando Letelier (an ex-diplomat from Allende’s socialist government) and American journalist, Ronnie Moffet (Moffet’s husband Michael was seriously injured but survived.) As it turned out, the assassination was pulled off by agents of the Chilean government, the very regime hoisted upon the Chilean people by Washington. Pinochet’s terror squads had murdered their opponents in the land of the free. A small plaque now marks the spot on Sheridan Circle in Washington D.C., where the killing took place, but it is woefully inadequate as a suitable memorial. I propose that a life-sized model of the bomb blasted car Letelier and Moffet were killed in be cast in bronze and mounted on a pedestal along Sheridan Circle. The inscription can be the same one found on the base of Thomas Marsh’s statue – For Those Who Love Liberty.

When General Pinochet died on December 10th, 2006, Paul M. Weyrich wrote a eulogy for the fascist dictator, titled, The Pinochet legacy: a free, non-Communist Chile. In that tribute, Weyrich proclaimed that the tyrant “should go down in history as a liberator.” Weyrich went on to say, “I know it is heresy to say this but the people of Chile should thank Pinochet. He saved their nation from a brutal Communist ‘experiment.'” People everywhere who believe in democracy and human rights have denounced and scorned General Pinochet. That the VOCMF courts and embraces the likes of Weyrich, reveals not a passion for freedom, but an extremist right-wing agenda.

At the Victims of Communism Memorial dedication ceremony, President Bush said, “Communist regimes did more than take their victims’ lives; they sought to steal their humanity and erase their memory. With this memorial, we restore their humanity and we reclaim their memory.” Mr. Bush, we are still awaiting the Washington D.C. monuments commemorating the genocide of the Native Americans and the horrendous days of slavery suffered by African-Americans.