The conversation: Protecting L.A.'s artistic identity
Critics of our city amuse themselves by saying Los Angeles has no history, no culture. Just our public artworks alone prove them wrong. That's why it's essential that we protect our city's artistic landscape, which represents not just our history but also L.A.'s unique identity. Over the last week and a half, this topic has come up in our Opinion pages in a variety of ways, from granting murals landmark status to devising a workable system for protecting outdoor sculptures.
In Wednesday's pages, Op-Ed columnist Tim Rutten campaigns to protect "unique and uniquely important murals" from 1949 by Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff from being sold to the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building on West Adams Boulevard is one of Los Angeles' too-often-overlooked historical and cultural treasures.
It was designed in the late 1940s to house what was then the largest African American-owned business west of the Mississippi by one of the city's storied architects, Paul Williams, certainly the most important black American architect of his generation. The building is a wonderful example of his singular capacity to meld utility and livability with an approach to design that wrung every ounce of expressive elegance from whatever style he engaged — in this case, Moderne.
The Golden State headquarters lobby also contains — and not by happenstance — two of the most significant works of art ever created here by African American artists, a complementary pair of murals titled "The Negro in California History" that comprises Charles Alston's "Exploration and Colonization" and Hale Woodruff's "Settlement & Development." Both men were heavily influenced by the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, with whom Woodruff studied.
Photo: Charles Alston's "Exploration and Colonization." Credit: Courtesy of gsmlife.com
Last week, Op-Ed columnist Gregory Rodriguez also made an argument for protecting a piece of L.A.'s history. As Los Angeles makes strides to claim its standing as a global city with all the modern amenities, he wrote that we shouldn't cover up our sillier side. That's right: We ought to respect Tail O’ the Pup as an important piece of L.A. architecture. He elaborates through the lens of "Chicken Boy."
Four years ago, [Highland Park graphic designer Amy Inouye] and her partner, artist Stuart Rappaport, placed a 23-foot-high fiberglass statue of a man with a chicken head on the roof of their studio. You may have seen Chicken Boy if you've driven out Figueroa Street, just below Avenue 56. The hulking figure holding a bucket of chicken — Chicken Boy was once the mascot for a restaurant that stood at Fifth and Broadway downtown — evokes a goofier time in L.A. history, when Angelenos built drive-through doughnuts 22 feet wide and hot dog stands that looked like, well, hot dogs.
To Inouye and Rappaport, those roadside curiosities reflected a broad culture of wackiness they fear Los Angeles is losing. When Inouye moved to L.A. from the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, she recalls driving around and "always having something to look at that would make me smile," including Chicken Boy. When the restaurant at Fifth and Broadway closed, Inouye saved the statue and then started selling Chicken Boy merchandise to fund his comeback. He's a throwback, she says fondly, to "fun, sunny, bright, cheap and delicious" times.
Photo: Chicken Boy is looking quite fit for his age. Credit: Future Studio
Then there's Watts Towers, Simon Rodia's unique and delicate sculptures that reside outside and therefore need a high level of attention for conservation and upkeep.
LACMA brings powerful conservation and administration resources to the table, and if it can work collaboratively, we hope it can win the community's trust.
Ideally, the towers should be overseen by a partnership of museum professionals, the Arts Center and the civic organizations. A well-crafted blueprint for the future might help attract a generous benefactor who could underwrite this worthy endeavor.
The towers have withstood earthquakes, riots, gangs and curious children who long ago climbed them like a jungle gym. Let's not have them succumb to politics.
Photo: The Watts Towers are prone to the elements. Credit: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times. See more photos.
"The line between art and vandalism seems to be getting a bit thin," wrote the editorial board this week when addressing whether it was fair for Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich to sue street artists including Smear (née Cristian Gheorghiu) for $1 million in penalties and prevent them from profiting on art that bared their street names.
Is it fair for the city to take away a promising young artist's livelihood? On the other hand, if Gheorghiu were allowed to get off scot-free, wouldn't that just encourage other taggers to rampage through the city in the hope of imitating his success? Taggers don't just deface empty walls; some of L.A.'s most beautiful public murals have been ruined by kids with more spray paint than sense.
Gheorghiu owes a debt to society, but by taking away his career, the city attorney is only ensuring that he can never pay it. After a graffiti vandalism conviction in 2007, he was ordered to pay about $28,000 in restitution but has only paid about $5,000. So here's our elegant solution: Settle the case, let Smear use his name, but charge him a fee each time he sells a piece of art using it until he has paid off the $23,000 he owes.
Photo: Graffiti artist Christian Gheorghiu, a.k.a. "Smear," stands in front of one of his paintings at the Buckwild Gallery on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times/July 24, 2010
--Alexandra Le Tellier