Category: Public art

The Harvey Milk Public Monument

On May 22, 2008, a monumental bronze bust of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office anywhere in the world and a martyred hero of the gay rights movement, was unveiled and officially dedicated in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, but was shot to death by an assassin a year later at S.F. City Hall along with the Mayor of the city, George Moscone. The unveiling of the commemorative statue, officiated over by San Francisco’s current Mayor, Gavin Newsom, occurred on what would have been Milk’s 78th birthday.

Portrait bust of Harvey Milk by DFH

[ Harvey Milk – Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group. 2008. The image shows the portrait bust of Milk as an unfinished work in progress before the clay model had been cast in bronze. ]

The realistic bronze bust of Milk stands atop a solid granite base, situated upon a pedestal faced with a bas-relief bronze plaque, and taken as a whole the monument is 75 inches high and weighs over 200 pounds. The slain gay rights activist is portrayed flashing his famous winning smile, his tie fluttering in a gentle wind. The relief plaque portrays three scenes from Milk’s life and times, his service in the U.S. Navy, riding in a Gay Pride Parade, and a depiction of the massive spontaneous candlelight march held by thousands in San Francisco the night of the assassinations. A quote by Milk appears on the pedestal as an inscription – “I ask the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give ’em hope.”

Some years ago the S.F. Board of Supervisors passed a resolution authorizing the statue, and a private committee raised the funds to secure and build the memorial. The San Francisco Arts Commission held a design competition, and selected a panel of jurors to judge the submissions. Out of three finalists, the commission was awarded to the Daub Firmin Hendrickson (DFH) sculpture group, a Berkeley, California based team that excels at creating figurative realist sculptures and bas-relief plaques cast in bronze.

DFH is a partnership between sculptors Eugene Daub, Rob Firmin, and Jonah Hendrickson, and their collaborative, traditional style bronze statues have appeared as public art works across the nation. In their own words, the trio specializes in “sculptures devoted to the aesthetic illumination of important histories and uplifting allegories, created in monumental scale cast in bronze.” I commend the Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group, not just for continuing the tradition of realistic monumental public sculpture, but also for seeking and accepting such an important commission as the Harvey Milk memorial. DFH should also be applauded for avoiding the “great man” theory of history that so often explains momentous events being the work of solitary individuals. By including panels on their memorial sculpture showing a mass movement of people, DFH gives us the view that history is made when enough people move together towards a common goal.

The assassin of Milk and Moscone was Dan White, a former police officer and a disgruntled law maker who had just resigned from the S.F. Board of Supervisors. Armed with his police revolver and extra ammunition, White secretly entered City Hall through a window in order to avoid detection and shot the two politicians at close range. The gunman surrendered himself to the police and his trial would be closely watched by the nation – it ended up being important for several reasons.

White denied the shooting was premeditated, and his legal team successfully argued that he suffered from “diminished capacity” due in part from eating too many Twinkies – the media came to call this the “Twinkie Defense”. Rather than receiving a murder conviction, White was instead found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and given a seven year prison sentence. San Francisco’s gay community and its allies immediately reacted to the verdict by filling the streets with angry protest, and thousands turned violent. On the evening of the “White Night Riots”, twelve S.F. police cars were set ablaze by furious rioters. White would serve slightly more than three years of his prison sentence before committing suicide, and in 1982 the California legislature would do away with “diminished capacity” as a legal defense. These events and more are covered in the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk suspected that someone would eventually try to assassinate him, so he recorded a statement to be played in case of that eventuality. In that public statement Milk said; “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” While some obstacles barring gays from enjoying full democratic rights have been done away with – others still remain. The memorial bronze of Harvey Milk placed in San Francisco’s City Hall should be a constant reminder of what has yet to be achieved.

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.