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Festival '90 : A MATTER OF PRIDE : Controversial murals overcome censorship to depict L.A. history and Chicano pride

August 26, 1990|Merle Schipper | Schipper is a free-lance art historian based in Santa Monica who will co-chair the Congress of the International Assn. of Art Critics (AICA).

Some murals that bedeck the scene as Los Angeles Festival opens are going to give streetside L.A. not only a new look, but also a challenging one. Two of them, for that matter, are not new. Although Willie Herron's faded "Doliente de Hidalgo," completed in 1976, was rescued by the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) as part of its 1989-1990 Neighborhood Pride: Great Walls Unlimited Program, Barbara Carrasco's "History of Los Angeles--A Mexican Perspective," first undertaken in 1981, is being reclaimed after being concealed from the public eye on other, and controversial grounds.

Considering the issues concerning censorship that have made headlines for more than a year, and considering Los Angeles' own history on censorship, such action is a switch.

Censorship here peaked during the McCarthy era when city fathers were bent on finding hammers and sickles in the most benign abstract or semi-abstract paintings. In the case of public art, officialdom remained vigilant even into the '80s as the Carrasco work testifies, in order to decide for citizens what was and what wasn't suitable view.

It had been hoped that along with the Carrasco work, whose completion and installation is sponsored by the festival, that the restoration of David Alfaro Siqueiros' "America Tropical," which had been under way, would be completed in time for the festival. As The Times reported earlier this month, completion will not take place until 1991. Painted on a second-story wall on Olvera Street in 1932 and hidden under coats of whitewash since shortly afterwards, it was a prime target of official decree.

"America Tropical" reflected Siquieros' outrage against the exploitation of migrant workers in the United States, and their mass deportation to Mexico, but the depiction of a crucified Mexican Indian placed below a predatory American Eagle outraged civic leaders, promoting them to take immediate action.

After an earlier attempt to restore the mural was abandoned in the 1970s, "America Tropical" has been undergoing conservation work on the wall of the Olvera Street building where it was installed. The 16-by-80-foot artwork may still be obscured by scaffolding when the festival opens but should become visible shortly afterwards, according to program director Claire Peeps.

The whitewashing of the Siquieros work is recorded on the Carrasco mural, whose completion was blocked less than a decade ago. Now, the Chicana artist's work, which has precisely the same dimensions (16 x 80 feet) as the Siqueiros--coincidence, Carrasco says--will go on view at Union Station, to beam down from a wall in the main waiting room, only a stone's throw from the Siqueiros.

Commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency following approval of the artist's sketch in 1981, the mural was rejected by the CRA a year later on the grounds of its subject matter, especially for scenes depicting Chinese railroad workers who were executed in the late 19th Century and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the World War II.

After a court battle over ownership of its copyright, which the artist ultimately won, the controversy did not prevent exhibition of a large section of the unfinished, but luckily, portable, work at MIT in 1987. Critical praise ensued.

Carrasco's mural has 51 panels, each framed in strands of hair flowing from the head of a dreamy Queen of the Angels at the far left. Reading chronologically from left to right, they portray historical events, landmarks and figures that are not just meaningful to Chicanos but point to the contribution of the many cultures that have played a role in making Los Angeles the city it is today.

They range from the building of the San Gabriel Mission to a contemporary freeway scene; from the depictions of an unidentified Gabrielino Indian and the first black mayor of Los Angeles, to murdered Times reporter Ruben Salazar, "Zoot Suit" playwright Luis Valdez and its star Edward James Olmos, and the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela. Carrasco's 17 young assistants, most of them gang members, along with others involved in the project, are there too.

Born in El Paso in 1955 and raised in the Mar Vista Gardens housing project, Carrasco has won global recognition. A UCLA graduate and currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate at CalArts, she collaborated on the "Zoot Suit Mural" at the Aquarius Theatre in 1979, and on murals in Armenia and Nicaragua, and in addition, has created banners and other artworks for the United Farm Workers. Another controversial work, "Pesticides," was shown last year on a spectacolor lightboard in New York's Times Square.

The fresh, vibrant hues that emblazoned Willie Herron's "Doliente de Hidalgo" in East Los Angeles when it was first completed will again beam down from the Mercado (then Farmacia) Hidalgo at 4301 City Terrace Drive.

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