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They've barely scratched the surface

Under layers of paint and structural work, a 1932 mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros is found. Will it ever see the light of day?

January 09, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

A stocky fellow with an open shirt baring his powerful chest stands on a makeshift podium, raising a fist and extending a hand as he appeals to his ragtag audience. A black man, transfixed by the soapbox orator, stands to one side cradling a child in his arms. A downtrodden white woman, also holding a child, watches from the other side. Above the speaker, dark-skinned laborers crouch on scaffolding and hang over the edge of a roof as they devour every last word of the message.

This is "Street Meeting," a 24-by-19-foot mural painted in 1932 by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros at a now-defunct art school near MacArthur Park. It's one of Los Angeles' most important public artworks, and it vanished soon after it was created.

Some artists who assisted Siqueiros have told historians that faulty materials were to blame. Others have said that the painting was obliterated because of objections to the subject matter. As time passed and memories dimmed, the school -- established as Chouinard School of Art and later known as Chouinard Art Institute -- evolved into CalArts in Valencia. In typical L.A. style, the old building became the home of one Korean church, followed by another, and the mural was all but forgotten.

Until now. A small group of Siqueiros and Chouinard enthusiasts, bolstered by a team of professional paintings conservators, has discovered that the two-story work is at least partly intact. Its condition is unknown, and large areas may have been lost or damaged. But preliminary tests indicate that "Street Meeting" did not flake off or wash away, as often reported. It is buried under several layers of paint, on a wall that has been divided by a roof, partly tiled and roughly patched. Indented lines in the upper wall conform to contours of images in the mural. Nail holes and small excavations reveal vivid color.

"This is mind-blowing," said Dave Tourje, an artist, contractor and executive director of Chouinard School of Art in South Pasadena, a 2-year-old re-creation of the original institution. He discovered the location of the mural last summer but didn't go public with the news until he had discussed the situation with current owners of the building and engaged conservators who could verify the existence of the painting and assess its condition. The conservators completed their first round of tests Wednesday.

The project faces enormous challenges. But if "Street Meeting" can be saved and put back on public view, Tourje said, it will restore "something very culturally significant" to the community.

A turning point for the artist

Siqueiros painted three murals in Los Angeles during a six-month sojourn. His only outdoor wall paintings in the United States, they mark a turning point in his development, said Los Angeles-based art historian Shifra M. Goldman, a Latin America specialist who has written extensively about his work.

The masterpiece of the trio, "America Tropical," stretches across the second floor of a historic building on Olvera Street. Painted over within a few years of its unveiling because of its political content -- though not before it had faded badly -- the 18-by-80-foot mural is the subject of a massive conservation effort that has dragged on for nearly two decades. Another Siqueiros mural, "Portrait of Mexico Today," an 8-by-32-foot painting commissioned for the patio of a home in Pacific Palisades, was restored to nearly pristine condition and moved to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2002.

The Chouinard mural, the first of the L.A. works, is a seminal piece, Goldman said, representing his search for an expressive style attuned to revolutionary ideals and illuminating his experiments with airbrush painting on cement.

Conservator Leslie Rainer, a veteran of the Olvera Street mural project who heads the team studying the Chouinard painting, called it "a great find" for the city and the art community. "If we are able to recover it," she said, "it will give scholars and conservators an opportunity to learn much more about Siqueiros and his mural painting technique in Los Angeles. It will also give the city one more potentially great example of his mural work."

Siqueiros, who died in 1975, was an influential figure whose work throbs with revolutionary fervor and aesthetic muscle. Allied with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco and best known for fiery murals in Mexico City, he promoted large-scale wall painting as a public forum for social justice. He found his political voice as an art student, helped unionize fellow artists and concentrated on Communist Party affairs from 1925 to 1930, when he was imprisoned for his political activities and confined to Taxco, in southern Mexico.

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