Perhaps more than any other American city, Los Angeles creates, shapes and reshapes itself. We tell our own tales, often visually, a natural way to express ourselves in a town known for making movies. Cinema aside, another way we tell our stories visually, is through murals. From downtown core to suburban sprawl, even 50 years ago, Los Angeles was considered a city of murals. An eleven-year moratorium on the art form temporarily chilled that designation, but today, mural making has returned to weave an artistic quilt throughout the city.
Surface Tension: Murals, Signs, and Mark-Making in LA, Ken Gonzales-Day’s exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center (through February 25, 2018) documents more than 140 LA street artworks, both current and historic. Visitors stand on a floor map with numbers that correspond to photographs of mural art throughout the region. Both literally and figuratively, we’re stepping into a world that does more than merely decorate the city; it documents its history, its residents, its diversity. Each of Gonzales-Day’s photographs can be matched to a location and, in many cases, to the name of the artist who created the work. Moving from East Los Angeles to Venice, we witness an understanding of both community and history; local artists tell their own stories in their own ways. Surface Tension is artistic photographic journalism that depicts a more raw and intense form of street art. Large-scale narrative imagery devoted to the life of the city, the artists who create it and the neighborhoods in which it takes place is a satisfying way to “spread the news.”
Public art is both a human impulse and imperative. It does not need a museum to contain it or gallery walls to adorn. Like the ancient cave art of Lascaux, France and South Sulawesi, Indonesia—the latter believed to be created 35,000 years ago —Los Angeles murals are a passionate form of self-expression. Many of these works are created by Chicano artists. One such artist’s mural work is on display south of LA. My Barrio: Emigdio Vasquez and Chicana/o Identity in Orange County, at Chapman University, documents the work of Emigidio Vasquez—considered the godfather of Orange-based Chicano art—who painted more than 30 murals. Vasquez’s El Proletariado de Azátlan, celebrating the Chicano cultural movement, is being restored and completed on the Chapman campus by his son, Emigdio “Higgy” Vasquez, who was present when his father created the original work in 1979. Located on the side of an apartment building garage, the mural depicts the famous figure of Cesar Chavez, but also documents the Chicano presence throughout California—citrus farmers, rail workers, miners— in a powerful tribute to Vasquez’ community, identity and heritage.
A crumbling wall and faded paint had endangered the mural, but it has now been fully restored by Higgy Vasquez under the auspices of Chapman. The university is also offering a gallery exhibition of Vasquez’s oil paintings alongside mural artifacts and other contemporary works by LA artists. A mapping of all 30 of the artist’s murals in Orange County is available through an iPhone app. Following in his father’s footsteps, Higgy Vasquez is also creating his own mural, Visions of Chapman: Education, Diversity and Community, portraying the history of the university itself. This work has been painted on portable, durable cloth-like material, one way for future muralists to preserve their work and make it portable.
Also portable are the temporary murals commissioned by Downtown LA’s Central Library. Painted by the Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos, eight panels in Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA (For the Pride of Your Hometown, the Way of the Elders and in the Memory of the Forgotten) portray the indigenous migrant point of view from a contemporary perspective. Bold yet dreamlike, they tell the story of a young boy with a tattooed teardrop on one cheek, a sharpie and other pens in his hand. His image appears in all panels, serving as a potent look to the future as well as the past. The murals are mounted below the permanent panoramic 1933-era narrative murals about California history painted by Dean Cornwell. In their portrayal of Native Americans subjugated to European conquerors, these historic works use a muted palette, as if to downplay the subjugation taking place. In contrast, the Oaxacan muralists use saturated hues that command attention, drawing the viewer’s eyes directly to the 13-foot-tall panels and providing a revised perspective on California history and its indigenous inhabitants. The work is especially poignant and relevant today, with DACA on the chopping block and ethnic division laid flat out on the political table.
Each of these mural projects is a part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. Like the cave walls of our ancestors, murals represent our collective cultural legacy. They’re the perfect canvas for the elegant sprawl of our city, its history, its diversity and its dreams.