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A marriage as a work of art

Eloy Torrez paints with intensity. Margarita Guzman assists with a sense of calm. But it was her brush with death that helped him see his work in a new light.

October 12, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

From a distance it all seems so wildly romantic: the life of a roving mural painter and his devoted soul mate, the bohemian swirl of hip parties, high-profile commissions and proletarian politics. Makes you long for the open road and the scent of turpentine, doesn't it, like a sepia-tinted photo of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, effortlessly glamorous, traipsing across North America, trampling bourgeois respectability and each other's hearts ...

Well, so much for drama. Here's the daily grind:

It's a blistering afternoon at the intersection of Highland and Selma avenues in Hollywood. Stepping gingerly across a clattering cat's cradle of ropes and platforms rising three stories above the street, Eloy Torrez and Margarita Guzman are crafting an Imax-size gallery of pop-culture immortals -- Dorothy Dandridge, Judy Garland, Ricky Nelson, Dolores Del Rio -- on the eastern facade of the Hollywood High School auditorium.

Coated in sweat, paint and a layer of fine, chalky dust, the couple plan to work until nightfall, taking advantage of the deepening shade. But as the 5 o'clock sun slides toward the Pacific, it's still so hot that you swear Dandridge is going to reach up at any moment and wipe a giant hand across her long, mocha-colored neck.

Torrez isn't looking at Dandridge, though. It's Del Rio who's been driving him nuts. In the eight months since he started the mural, he says, he has worked and reworked the figure of the Mexican matinee idol and still he's not satisfied. "The hand ... it looks a little clumsy to me," he says. "You get on a rhythm and everything just flows. And then sometimes you just can't figure it out."

It's days like this when Torrez, a congenital perfectionist who happens to be one of Southern California's most accomplished and in-demand muralists, wishes he were back in his cluttered studio in an old redbrick building east of the Los Angeles River, making art for himself rather than the masses. It's days like this when he struggles to bear in mind his wife's constant admonition: Have faith, Guzman tells her husband of eight years, things will work out, they always have. "And Eloy," she adds gently, "it's not the Sistine Chapel."

Not that you've got to be Michelangelo to experience the ecstasy and the agony of mural painting, a discipline that arose among the prehistoric cave dwellers of Altamira in Northern Spain, reached its apex in Renaissance Italy, memorialized the Mexican Revolution, and is today the one art form that no Angeleno can fail to encounter while casually strolling a downtown street or cruising the Hollywood Freeway.

For many years after he graduated from Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) in 1983, Torrez labored to make a name for himself as a painter. His magical-surrealist portraits established him as a rising talent, and his serigraph prints are well-regarded enough to have been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and what is now the UCLA Hammer Museum.

But it wasn't until he was hired by the owners of the Victor Clothing Co. to paint "The Pope of Broadway" in 1985 that his reputation as a popular artist took off. Rising like a Technicolor tsunami over the intersection of Broadway and 3rd Street in downtown Los Angeles, the 72-foot-tall mural depicts actor Anthony Quinn dancing against the interior of the Bradley Building, his arms raised as if bestowing a benediction on the city's lost souls. "I grew up very Catholic as a kid and my first exposure to art was the Stations of the Cross, and I think I was somehow influenced by that when I did 'The Pope,' " Torrez says.

"The Pope" proved to be a blessing for his career, and more mural commissions quickly followed. Besides "Legends of Hollywood" at Hollywood High, completed last spring, his best-known public artworks include a dream-like civic allegory in the cafeteria of the Metropolitan Water District building and a pantheon of Latin American cultural heroes at the Ramona Gardens public housing project, a frequent first stop for Spanish-speaking immigrants trying to gain a foothold in El Norte.

But mural painting is a demanding, paradoxical profession that requires its practitioners to be both conspicuous and anonymous, highly public yet self-effacingly submerged in their creations. It is art conceived on a brash, epic scale, but its subject matter is usually scripted by committee rather than dictated by personal vision. It serves as a shrine to communal memory, but it seldom lasts more than a decade or two before sunlight, rain and graffiti render it a faded relic. It is an art that belongs to everyone and no one.

His awareness of his work's ambiguous provenance, its creeping mortality, may help explain why Torrez, at 49, is finally beginning to take his wife's advice to heart. "You know how sometimes you're looking for something that's right there?" he says, reflecting on his career's trajectory. "Sometimes you're so concerned with moving forward that you miss the whole point."

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