Pacific Standard Time: Against the Wall

Muralism in Los Angeles

The history of muralism in Los Angeles has its roots in the Mexican Renaissance of the 1920s. During that period, Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros came to paint in the US. In 1930, Orozco painted Prometheus at Pomona College, on the very edge of Los Angeles county; and, just two years later, Siqueiros completed América Tropical above Olvera Street in the oldest part of downtown Los Angeles. It was both the medium and the message-laden tradition of Mexican muralism that inspired the Chicano art movement in the 1960s.

The Great Wall, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, was conceived by Judy Baca in 1974 as part of a neighbourhood beautification project. Over the years it took to complete, and later to restore, Baca worked with dozens of artists and more than 400 youth and community members to create a ‘pictorial representation of the history of ethnic peoples of California from prehistoric times to the 1950s’. It is a cultural landmark, a widely cited example of Chicana/o art, a feminist and queer work, and many visitors are surprised to discover that, despite its notoriety, the mural is easy to miss because it is painted just below ground level inside a cement flood channel in the Valley. The Great Wall spans an impressive 839.4 metres but can only be viewed through a chain-link fence that runs along the channel. Part community art project, part urban planning, it emerged at a time when few brown artists could exhibit their work anywhere in Los Angeles. Today, when most people think of LA murals, they think of those along the 101 motorway in downtown Los Angeles, The Great Wall, giant celebrity portraits of Anthony Quinn and Jim Morrison, the occasional whale – and their distaste for having to drive through hours of traffic to see them.

The Great Wall is narrative and begins with a woolly mammoth and several other ill-fated mammals (who are apparently destined to be excavated from the city’s La Brea Tar Pits) before moving to California’s often equally tragic human history. One of the most poignant sections for me depicts an LA street scene from ground level. In it, the viewer must peer through the wide stance of an LAPD officer’s knee-high, black patent-leather boots to see a young Latino man beaten and shirtless on the ground. A discarded newspaper headline reads: ‘Zoot Suiters learn lesson.’ The Zoot Suit Riots took place in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943, when thousands of white servicemen and civilians attacked and often stripped Mexican-American youths, and other persons of colour, of their zoot suits. Similar, if smaller, occurrences of anti-Mexican violence appeared across the nation. But today, in a year when anti-Mexican rhetoric has fuelled red-faced crowds to jeer and chant racist comments against immigrants from many nations, I have to stop and ask myself: what lessons did we really learn?

Few would debate that Los Angeles is a city of images. Enormous billboards and moving graphics line the Sunset Strip and mark the hillsides. In Venice, I photographed metallic paint dripping from palm trees that had been tagged so many times it was impossible to decipher. There are local and international mural artists who live double lives; commissioned by cafes, corporations and schools by day, they often make unsigned ‘street art’ under cover of night. Murals in Los Angeles’s booming downtown Arts District are seen by some as part of gentrification and blamed for displacing lower-income and working-class communities, while murals reflecting civic and cultural themes in culturally or economically homogenous neighbourhoods are often embraced as empowering to those communities.

In Los Angeles there are murals that directly reference Mexican modernism, Rivera and Frida Kahlo; these and other painted signs and advertisements also sometimes capture the optimism frequently associated with emergent economies. Graffiti and tagging, once reviled by serious muralists, are now often incorporated in works that have multiple contributors. And, like The Great Wall, there are murals that employ a more traditional approach to reflect, educate or teach the communities in which they are found. Still others express rage and political frustration. However, some of the lessons learned are not so obvious.

Located in an underpass on Sunset Boulevard, Ruben Soto’s mural Eyes (1991, restored 1997) depicts the partial portraits or eyes of Kent Twitchell – one of LA’s most iconic muralists – a pastor and the artist himself. A photograph I took of it, from street level, captures a detail of one of the eyes. It depicts – on the sidewalk in front of the mural – a sleeping bag, two bottles of water, some cardboard, a slightly stained brown paper bag and a fast-food cup with a straw that clearly belonged to a homeless person who had taken up residence in front of this ever-watching brown eye. This image points to the symbolic violence of photography and the uneasy relationship between beautification and gentrification, representation and objectification as well as what is, perhaps, the greatest lesson of modernism: that while art may help us see both privilege and oppression, it can rarely change it.

Main image: Ken Gonzales-Day, Zoot Suit Riots, 2016, photograph of a detail from The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural by Judy Baca and assistants (1974–83), Valley Glen, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist

Ken Gonzales-Day is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, USA. He is professor of art at Scripps College, Claremont, USA, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography in 2017. The Great Wall is one of over 100 murals that will be featured in ‘Surface Tension’, an exhibition of photographs by Gonzales-Day of LA murals, at the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, from 6 October to 25 February 2018.

Issue 189

First published in Issue 189

September 2017

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018