LOS ANGELES — No matter where he stands, Kent Twitchell looks to be in scale with the environment. At Lam Gallery in Los Angeles, he greeted friends who had come to the opening reception of Kent Twitchell: The Man Who Paints Giants, a show filled with photographs, renderings, and sketches of his signature massive California murals, including the eight-story “Harbor Freeway Overture” he completed in 1993; one of his smaller works, “Nelson Mandela Monument,” installed on a piece of the Berlin Wall in 2014; and a photo of his two-story “The Freeway Lady” from 1974, a portrait of the adored matriarch for 101 freeway commuters that was recreated at Los Angeles Valley College and dedicated Thursday. One of the works displayed was actual size: the head of Ed Ruscha, which Twitchell will use in his next piece, “The Return of Ed Ruscha.” Production will begin in August, the artist says.
Twitchell comes from the first wave of 1970s artists who led Los Angeles to earn a reputation for murals. He’s been waiting to bring back Ruscha ever since his 1987 piece “Ed Ruscha Monument” was painted over in 2008. That public art portrait honoring the painter and photographer associated with the West Coast Pop Art movement had taken nearly a decade to complete.
The idea for a reboot of Ruscha took hold when Twitchell was being given a tour of walls around the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District by muralist Damon Martin. When they came to the 200-foot-high north wall of the American Hotel, Martin asked Twitchell if he had any ideas for what could go there. Twitchell first thought the location seemed incidental to host an image in monumental form, a mural tradition of Southern California. “The space looked too small,” he recalls.
The district is in an older section of Downtown LA where the walls, streets, and intersections fit together like angled puzzle pieces. The foot traffic has increased, and this side of the Alameda curtain is stuffed with stencils and street art. The wall Martin and Twitchell were discussing faces the city’s core, and the neighborhood has its own history of artist living and working in 100-year-old spaces since the 1970s. That all made Twitchell ultimately decide that this was the right site for Rusha’s new residency.
“I think like an architect,” says Twitchell. “The wall dictates everything. [The piece] begins to develop in front of your eyes, like a black-and-white image in the darkroom.”
Later, while looking at his 1978 archive photos of Ruscha, Twitchell wondered, “Why don’t I honor him the way he is today?” He reached out to Ruscha, who agreed. So Twitchell will paint him as he looks now, at age 78, which is, of course, different from the way the artist appeared when he was 70 feet high on South Hill Street in the 1980s.
Its destruction will be the first Ruscha mural’s lasting story. It is as intriguing as the whitewash of the David Alfaro Siqueiros “America Tropical” in 1932, a mural on the side of the Plaza Art Center that was controversial the moment it was dedicated. Olvera Street founder Christine Sterling had commissioned Siqueiros to paint lush tropical imagery to help her romanticized branding of the birthplace of Los Angeles as a serene village. Instead she got a politically penetrating fresco of a crucified Indian peasant and a North American eagle perched on the cross. The tropical plants were there, but so were a pair of armed Peruvian and Mexican revolutionaries. The mural was painted over almost away. But by the late 1960s, “America Tropical” had begun to reappear from under the whitewash, and it came to be seen as a symbol of ethnic revelation and a banner for the Chicano mural movement.
Decades later, the loss of “Ed Ruscha Monument” also became an artistic battle flag by stating how large-scale works should be protected by federal and state laws, showing that sometimes the political drama behind a piece of art is as much a spectacle as the work itself.
What may be even more compelling is the shared aesthetic between Ruscha and Twitchell. “Ed Ruscha Monument” was positioned next to a parking lot, in an accidental reference to Ruscha’s 1967 photo book Thirtyfour parking lots in Los Angeles, which paid tribute, in black and white, to the lots of urbanized Southern California. In her essay “Thirtyfour Parking Lots in the Fragmented Metropolis,” Susanna Newbury, professor of art history at UNLV, wrote that the “parking lots and their photography, in this context, seem at once incidental and fundamental,” and, further, that they were an abstract of “pure function void of meaning.” For two decades, the image of Ruscha stood tall, with his hands to the side and his shadow posed by the sun. On weekends, when white- and blue-collar workers fled the city, Ruscha’s image watched over his patch of negative-space asphalt.
“Your connection is a good one,” Ruscha wrote to me when I mentioned the position of the mural overlooking the lot. “The irony of me looking over a parking lot, a subject I’ve been attracted to in the past, never once occurred to me.”
Another connection between Ruscha and Twitchell is the way both men use stillness as composition. A young Ruscha often traveled to Oklahoma and back along Route 66, with the West passing by like negative space in motion, a moving stillness. In his artist books, with the parking lot seen from the air, critics and curators embrace his meditative, yet playful, bland aesthetic. But if we’re going to read parking lots as urban land art, it’s best to use Ruscha’s dry wit and label it “bland art.”
Twitchell’s portraits are also framed with a quietness of space, isolating mood and detail in his subjects. The walls imbue each portrait with the same commendatory cool minimalism we see in Ruscha’s work. “Negative space is everything,” as Twitchell told me.
Soon, down the street from SCI-Arc, around the corner from Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, on a building that is one of the last habitats dedicated to artists, Twitchell will begin painting his new 30-foot-high Ruscha. “I am glad to be overlooking downtown LA, [rather] than, say, Inglewood,” Ruscha joked in an email to me, his signature deadpan seeping through.
Twitchell will start with the shadows, then Ruscha’s elbows will appear to rest on the building next door, and eventually his eyes will take shape to contemplate a city that both artists use to find context in stillness.
Kent Twitchell: The Man Who Paints Giants continues at Lam Gallery (913 N Highland Ave., Los Angeles) through May 14.