Artist Craig Stecyk stands in front of his installation, "Faith,… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
The steps from Grand Avenue to the entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Art may descend only 35 feet from the street, but that's as deep as you need to go to exhume the bulldozed spirit of Los Angeles' Bunker Hill.
It's where you'll find "Faith, Hope and Charity," an installation in MOCA's lobby of day-glo-colored prints in which C.R. Stecyk III, better known as Craig Stecyk, pays homage to the city's first subdivision.
Stecyk came of age during Los Angeles' often ruthless mid-century modernization — an era of freeway building, urban renewal and gentrification that saw neighborhoods, micro-cultures and their artifacts buried and displaced.
These transformations have been a recurrent theme in Stecyk's photography, graffiti and art installations, which have exploited everything from the eradication of the Chumash from Malibu to the white-boy commodification of vato culture in Venice. His art is history by other means, and now the very earth underneath MOCA is one of his subjects.
"Faith, Hope and Charity" refers to Bunker Hill street names when the neighborhood was a Victorian-era bastion of power and prestige.
Stecyk's godfather introduced him to Bunker Hill when he was a kid, and it was in the last gasps of its bohemian second act before urban blight and urban renewal erased it. For him, it was an indelible introduction to painters, potters, ceramists, movie studios, car shops.
"I used to wander around Bunker Hill and got this sense of this fantastic, mysterious, magisterial environment," Stecyk said on Saturday at a reception to celebrate the exhibit before its April 1 closing. "Bunker Hill was part of the mythos."
FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview
The installation is a display of 14-inch by 22-inch mixed-media panels (photography, airbrush, serigraphy, letterpress, relief painting) running 18 wide and three deep. Stecyk created more than 200 panels, which cycle in and out of the display during the exhibit's run. In some cases, he printed dozens of a single image just to get the right effect.
The images, printed in the signature day-glos of the late, great Colby Printing, which closed its Pico-Union shop just last December, establish a catalog of phantom artifacts for the once-vibrant home of 20,000 Angelenos, a place that inspired Chandler, Bradbury, Fante, Bukowski, Chaplin and many more.
Among the panels is an image of the oil derrick-shaped sign that once stood atop the Richfield Building (now home to the twin towers on 4th and Flower), and iconography related to the film and auto industries that once thrived in Bunker Hill.
One panel features the letters B and H cast from 120-year-old Majestic Printer wood blocks from long-gone Majestic Printer. Others contain textures made from the gingerbread and dingbat architectural ornamentation that Stecyk salvaged from Bunker Hill's leveled Victorians.
FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview
Panels that spell out "Adios" are the final prints done at Colby, whose work once seemed to adorn every chain-link fence in the city and defined our visual vernacular as much as any mural.
"The irony that MOCA sits on top of that history, that here's this art museum on top of this sterile environment and underneath it is all this history … it was a fantastic idea," said MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch, at the reception in an ochre suit and smiling easily despite battling the flu and the vicissitudes of the L.A. art establishment.
Soft afternoon sun spilled into the lobby while the Clash at their dubbiest worse throbbed over the sound system. Salty art dealers, middle-aged music moguls and erstwhile skate legends in carefully considered casuals zealously reconnected while their more elegant partners swapped digits.
Though they've been circling each other for more than a decade, it was during MOCA's "Art in the Streets" show that the seeds of this exhibit were sewn. "[Stecyk's] project there was phenomenal," Deitch said. "Other artists just loved it. His room was always the place where other artists were hanging out."
Deitch, who said he wants people to experience art as soon as they enter the building, began talking to Stecyk about doing a lobby installation more than a year ago. Stecyk prosed this particular context-laden project and Deitch bit.
"I thought Stecyk would be the right person," Deitch said.
"I have deep, long-term knowledge of the spirit of the place," said Stecyk, dressed down in jeans, T-shirt and a baseball cap, demurely lurking around the edges of the reception, greeting well wishers with a shy grin, patiently posing for pictures with new fans. "The great social crimes of when I came up were the takeover of Chavez Ravine and the eradication of Bunker Hill."
Looking up the stairs to Grand Avenue, watching the sun sink behind Bunker Hill's shiny skyscrapers, it was hard not to think an old friend in the city was being discovered all over again.
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