Murals Under Attack

By Roger Linnett

‘this world is but a canvas to our imagination.”  – Henry David Thoreau

As anyone who has visited the Venice Beach Public Art Walls next to the Skate Park can tell you, ‘street art” and wall mural painting is a vibrant art form in L.A. Saturday, Dec.11 a new exhibition, ‘the Constraint of Street Art – Illusions of Grime”, opened at SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, as part of its ongoing “Planet Siqueiros” series, to sound the alarm regarding the perilous state of murals and related public works of art in L.A.

There is currently a freeze on new permits for murals citywide. Also, as with everything else in our economically-beleaguered city, the funds to maintain and promote new public art projects have been severely curtailed.

The exhibit is the result of a yearlong effort that began with a conversation between Gustavo “Daniel” Muñoz and SPARC Executive Director Debra Padilla, and was curated by Muñoz, one of the nine contributing artists, all former taggers and graffitists. The exhibition’s focus is a commentary on the forces that are trying to whitewash, literally, the street mural from the walls of our metropolis, and to present street art, especially murals, as a valid and positive contribution to the community and society in general.

Artists Berk, D2, Gash86, Never, Silvana Jeyd Paredes, Myron Reyes, Sonji, TankOne and Muñoz used oils, acrylics and mixed media, as well as, of course, spray paints, on canvas, wood and found objects to create the 21 paintings on view.

In addition to the artwork, an “Artists” Manifesto”, in support of SPARC’s ‘save the Murals” campaign, is part of the display. The manifesto, with contributions by each of the artists, defines and proclaims their common purpose and a plea for the right of their art to survive and thrive. The group also collaborated on a 85-foot wall mural, created especially for this showing, along the east side of the public parking lot next to SPARC.

Each of the artists has at one time or another run afoul of the law in their passionate pursuit of creating public art; several have served jail time. Their drive remains unabated. If anything they are more committed to publicizing the need for public art in a cityscape becoming more and more dominated by digital billboards and posters.

In bit of deliciously droll irony, SPARC’s gallery, where the paintings are hung, was the former detention area, i.e., cell block, complete with the original heavy, iron-barred doors, of the old Venice police station, which is now home to SPARC.

The iron lattice of one cell door, itself a mute victim of untold coats of thickly-slathered paint, is bedecked with the empty spray cans used for the outside wall mural, like an artistic exclamation point to the manifesto which hangs above it. As elegant a statement of art’s raison d’etre as when E.M. Forster said, ‘to make us feel small in the right way is a function of art; men can only make us feel small in the wrong way.”

Murals everywhere are under attack. Right here in Venice a well-known mural on the side of the building at Pacific and Windward was sacrificed to advertising just last spring. Recently, taggers throughout the city have begun to employ a pernicious tactic. Under the Visual Artist Rights Act, the agencies in charge of maintaining the city’s murals are restrained from painting over any part of designated works of art, and simply don’t have the resources to constantly police and restore them. The taggers, by befouling a mural with their nocturnal besmirchings, are serendipitously protected from having their petty desecrations removed.

Just recently a mural, commissioned by MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch for the Geffen Contemporary Museum in Little Tokyo, was painted over shortly after it was completed, on orders from Deitch. Italian street artist Blu’s mural on the north side of the Geffen depicted rows of coffins draped with dollar bills instead of flags. Commissioned as part of the museum’s “Art in the Streets” show in April, Deitch claimed the mural might be offensive to the community. As Ambrose Bierce wryly observed, “Painting is the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather, and exposing them to the critic.”  Charges of censorship have been leveled at Deitch and MOCA from many besides the artist. An anonymous street artist has pasted a guerilla poster on the side of a downtown sushi restaurant, which has become “a neighborhood editorial space”. In it, Deitch is depicted as an Iranian ayatollah holding a paint roller dripping white paint in front of several of Blu’s coffins. Several letters accompanying the L.A. Times article about the anonymous poster voiced sentiments that ran the gamut from disheartening, ignoble and appalling to calls for his outright firing.

Censorship of murals in L.A. and elsewhere is nothing new.

Currently, an exhibit titled ‘siqueiros in America: Censorship Defied”, a retrospective of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, which includes over 100 of his works and related materials, is on view at the Autry Museum.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to try to restore Sequiros” 80-foot-long masterpiece “La America Tropical” in Olvera Street. The mural was whitewashed within a year of its unveiling on Oct. 9, 1932. It holds the dubious distinction of being the most infamous case of censorship in L.A. art history.

The following year in New York, Diego Rivera created one of his most famous murals, “Man at the Crossroads”, which was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for the lobby of Rockefeller Center.

Upset because Rivera refused to change a portrait of Lenin in the mural, Rockefeller had it immediately draped after its unveiling. It was destroyed and carted away in early 1934. Rivera later recreated it, on a smaller scale at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.

Rivera called the mural’s destruction “cultural vandalism”, which brings us back to SPARC and its ongoing program of championing public art and its current exhibition. As the authorities pursue a policy of eradicating street art and criminalizing street artists, it is well worth your time to come and discover how truly gifted these “graffiti artists” are, as they follow in the footsteps of Siqueiros, Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, and why they deserve a place in L.A.’s kaleidoscopic culture.

Please also consider signing SPARC’s petition supporting their “Mural Rescue Program,” requesting Mayor Villaraigosa to designate 10 percent of the city’s graffiti abatement budget for the program.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 6. SPARC is open Mon. thru Fri.,

10 am – 4 pm, and Sat. 1 – 4 pm.  The wall mural can be seen 24 hours a day, but is most impressive when viewed in bright sunlight.


Categories: Art, Events, Roger Linnett

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