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Defending the Mural Capital of America

SOCAL P.O.V. / PATT MORRISON

April 05, 1998|PATT MORRISON

The harbor freeway, 2 o'clock on a saturday afternoon, and I'm driving home from LAX after having collected a friend from New York, and suddenly she is shrieking, "God, that's wonderful." I look around wildly. What in L.A. could provoke a New Yorker to such an outburst? A scream alone I could understand; the "wonderful" I couldn't get a fix on. Might she have been struck as I was by the thrill of driving in a new carpool lane for the first time? No, not someone whose personal vehicle is a Yellow Cab.

I look again. I see only the traffic, the freeway, the high-rises of downtown. "That," she says, pointing, then fastidiously corrects her grammar. "Those."

Oh, the murals. Tall as the buildings, long as the underpasses, fauve as the biggest Crayola box. Some art census counted more than 1,000 murals on the walls of meta-Los-Angeles-as-backdrop7403201111885433957 The Watts Towers I would think to point out to a visitor. The ocean I wouldn't need to. Yet here I had driven my friend into the mural capital of America without so much as an "oh, by the way."

So that's why she shrieked. I should have, too.

*

Something about this place compels artists to apply large quantities of paint onto big walls: the Pacific scale, the Mediterranean light, the archival air. Something else about this place militates against any of it enduring: the urge to knock things down, cover things up, and change, change, by all means, change.

Art, almost always the 98-pound weakling in a bout with commerce, found a champion in a 1980 state law, and then a federal law modeled on it, requiring that whenever change is afoot for a work of art of recognized quality--and that extends to a wall or a building--the artist be given 30 days' notice, a chance to beat the wrecking ball or the paint sprayer, to remove and move the work. There are ways of doing this, one of them a technique by which a mural can be peeled off a wall and applied elsewhere, much in the way Silly Putty can pick up a comic strip. If it were that forthright, muralists would not need the counsel of Amy Neiman, attorney.

Amy Neiman was a Valley Girl. It was 1974, a year after she got her driver's license, that Kent Twitchell was paid $459 to paint "The Old Woman of the Freeway," Our Lady of the 101, the three-story afghan-wrapped elder presiding over the Hollywood Freeway. Neiman would see it as she drove to visit her grandparents, and she found it eerie. That the afghan was like one her grandmother made did not lessen the fact that the eyes--one malevolent, one benevolent--"always scared me." Years later, Neiman would find herself next to Twitchell, in court and on his scaffolding, to resurrect the old woman from whitewash and restore it to the city's landscape.

*

Her father used to joke about her college degree in underwater basket weaving. It was in fact art and technology--ceramics, photo imagery, art technology--and it struck fire with her law degree and brought Neiman in time to California Lawyers for the Arts. Neiman had a part in the case that determined that murals were bona fide art--and so legally protected. In 1980, when Neiman was still a law student, Shell Oil had commissioned the East Los Streetscapers to paint a mural, "Filling Up on Ancient Energies,"on the wall of a Boyle Heights service station. In 1988, without notice to the artists, Shell ordered the wall bulldozed for new construction. The artists took Shell to court. They had lost their handiwork, but with Neiman's help they won a precedent.

Still, she hasn't been able to answer for herself the question posed to her years ago; would she have graffiti art defined as such and likewise protected? "Some I'd see was spectacular . . . [then] you see some of the beautiful murals on the freeway all tagged up--that's defacing art."

*

The Olympics wall work of 1984, the colors that bloomed thereafter from Venice to Ventura, the advent of the Los Angeles Mural Conservancy and the tourists who come here wall-watching, still leave some unpersuaded that outdoor daubs can rank with a framed anything.

But seeing--and even not seeing, of the kind I was guilty of--has become a kind of believing. The Olvera Street mural that the city commissioned from Mexican muralist Siqueiros 65 years ago and whitewashed as a political outrage is being restored. "I think," Neiman says, "that once people realized how many there were, people respected and responded to them and are proud that this city has such a long history of murals--and so many beautiful examples."

Now that the law has put the principle of the freeway wall on a footing with a cave in Lascaux and a certain Leonardo da Vinci fresco on a wall in Milan, other cities have begun to call Neiman for advice. Sometime in her workweek Neiman does practice the potboilers of business and family law, but art is her specialty and preference. She lives in Venice--like East L.A., a muralist's mecca--in a home ornamented with lively and unorthodox works by some of the artist-clients she has defended. A few are payment in kind for her legal fees. Try doing that with a canceled check.

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