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The Art That Hangs Above LA’s Daily Commuters

As a problem of engineering, design, and aesthetics, commissioning art for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority was a gamble.

Willie Middlebrook, “Wanderers” (nd) on the Metrolink at the Expo/Crenshaw station (all images courtesy the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

LOS ANGELES — Georgette is a small, elderly woman. She’s black and has been riding the train, here in Los Angeles, since she was a kid. I met her recently on the Expo Line — Los Angeles’s newest light rail expansion that travels east and west from Downtown Los Angeles to Downtown Santa Monica. Georgette is quiet, barely louder than traffic at the Expo/Crenshaw station, but not shy to admit grievance. The Expo Line is one of the most popular lines in Los Angeles. There is security, and it is clean. “It’s safe,” Georgette said, especially when compared to Los Angeles’s Blue Line that runs through the middle of South Central to Long Beach. “The Blue Line is scary because there’s no security.” When pressed, Georgette, a commuter since the days of the Pacific Electric “Red Car” line, said that perhaps there’s greater effort to curb littering and violence because more white people ride the Expo Line. But we didn’t meet that day to talk about violence or racism, although there is more than enough of both to talk about nowadays. I met Georgette because of the art that hung above us.

Willie Middlebrook, “Wanderers” (nd) on the Metrolink at the Expo/Crenshaw station

In every one of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s 93 stations, servicing an area of more than 1,400 square miles, there is artwork commissioned by the agency to improve customer experience and drive up ridership. On the Expo Line alone, over 19 artists, whose artwork runs the gamut from stenciled illustrations on wood to painted photographs on glass, furnish each station. At the Expo/Crenshaw station, where Georgette and I met, the photo-paintings of Willie Middlebrook, who died in 2012, are situated in 24 mosaic panels above the platform. Middlebrook lived in Compton, and his work, makeshift, canonical, yet down to earth and observant, reach out and test the commuter. In one panel, there’s a detail of an older man’s eyes, in shock or anger, in another panel, a goddess with palms that sprout butterflies, verdant and turquoise, mirroring rebirth. And the men and women, mostly black and brown and Asian, are depicted realistically (Middlebrook was a photographer) but their meanings are associative. Work like Middlebrook’s, which Georgette offhandedly praised as nice to look at, got me wondering how other commuters like her would take it? What do they, largely working-class and black and latinx, think of the work that hangs above?

Willie Middlebrook, “Wanderers” (nd) on the Metrolink at the Expo/Crenshaw station

On a sweaty day one commuter is a young, brown woman sitting beside her sister, heading to Santa Monica. Up ahead of them is a white couple, talking loudly. The young woman in front of me pays no attention to the couple. She is ready for the beach, wearing a-size-too-large T-shirt with tiny holes at the back, most likely made from years of use (probably by an older sister or cousin) and has neon-print towels on her lap. But something is off. The young woman seems beside herself. She stares at the blurred cityscape zooming past, her reflection an afterimage over the distance outside: hills and silhouetted palm trees, apartments that hang like cliffs, and at the horizon, peeking through smog, a mountain that appears like a sandcastle. She must have traveled more than seven stations, a world away in Los Angeles, but now she will be within walking distance of Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier.

In a hurry, I snap a photograph of the young, brown woman’s reflection. We just hit the Downtown Santa Monica station, the terminus of the Expo Line, and I know everybody in the train would rush off. I have little time. I need to ask the young woman and her friend about Judithe Hernandez‘s artwork there — her mosaic glass panels of Geishas and black panthers, Aztec pyramids and lamassu, a deity of the ancient Assyrians. Hernandez, who, in the 1970s, as a member of the Los Four, painted murals of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and, in 1983, was the first chicana artist to have her work featured beyond the West Coast, capstones more than 100 individual panels featured on the Expo Line. Hernandez’s mosaics at the station are translated from her pastel work. They are grand, weaving together global mythologies and cultural markers, and, in honoring immigrant histories, are also heartbreaking. The young, brown woman might have agreed. In the photograph I made of her, her face is reflected on the train window, obscured by the grease of fingerprints that never seem to go away. She has a look of complete sadness. Her reflection floats above Third Street Promenade’s chichi boutiques, pop-up nurseries, and upscale coffee shops as though it were an apparition of the Indigenous people — Tongva, Chumash, Mexican — who once called this land their unquestionable home. In her artist statement, Hernandez describes her work at the end of the line, the pathway from Los Angeles to the ocean, as a “visual symphony, a magical dreamscape.” I wonder how the young woman and her sister would describe it. But they are soon lost in the crowd, somewhere beyond the 24 glass panels of Hernandez’s work, the last stop before the end of a continent.

Judithe Hernandez, “Untitled” (nd) at the terminus of the Expo Line

Los Angeles is a city of cities. Sprawling, congested, a labyrinth of telephone wire, yucca, and jasmine, alleys and neck-break highway corners, once inside it, the city seems boundless, a monster impossible to scale. Transportation in a city as vast as Los Angeles is immensely and understandably bad. Trips must be coordinated, with an eye toward those few hours of daylight before rush hour, itself a hellscape and no man’s land. Geography, then, is purpose in Los Angeles. Friends are ranked by distance. Far-flung romance set adrift. And art? Seeing art at one of Los Angeles’s many famed museums or galleries— LACMA, The Broad, MOCA, the Underground Museum, LACE — is a burden for anybody who travels by bus or train.

Judithe Hernandez, “Untitled” (nd) at the terminus of the Expo Line

“People are taking transit to get somewhere,” explained Maya Emsden, who oversees the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or Metro)’s art and design department. “We don’t want art that is milquetoast. Many of our commuters may not have access to a gallery or museum in their community.” Emsden, who joined Metro, in 1991, from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, rides the train every day and knows a commute is more than getting from point A to point B. There is also time spent waiting at the platform, moments that, over the course of a lifetime, eventually pool into hours. What’s around should invite another look. Emsden said Metro wants the stations to be seen as “community assets,” reflecting the people who live near them, evidence that the agency has put much thought into customer service. An experience like Georgette’s is music to Emsden’s ears.

The ideal experience is one of curiosity: questions about how art got here. Who made the decision to put it here? And why? Frankly, some of the artwork is so well integrated into our system that you might not even register it as art.

Public transportation may reflect communities that use it, and that use, in turn, will foster goodwill and, hopefully, bring in more riders.

On the Purple And Red Lines at Union Station, Terry Schoonhoven, “Traveler”

Not everybody was won over. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight, a three-time finalist for Pulitzer Prize in criticism, wrote in 2000 that, “what had been touted as perhaps the largest and most imaginative transit art program in the nation hadn’t added up to very much.” Of note, he chose only a handful of stations to praise— those with commissioned art by Terry Schoonhoven, Jonathan Borofsky, Renee Petropoulos, and Carl Cheng, all of whom are successful and respected, but also three out of the four are white and male. In particular fervor, Knight derided ceramic tile that he says he saw in all 30 stations he claimed to have visited. For him, ceramic is a symbol of a project that had derailed from its promise. Instead of world-class art befitting a megalopolis, the artwork was “mediocre” and “uninspired.” Who was to blame for this? Knight laid the fault squarely on the local artists and community representatives who made up the selection panels that commissioned artwork for Metro. “With locals-only committees culling locals-only artists, the dangers of parochialism weren’t lessened—they were magnified,” Knight wrote, referring to Metro’s practice of commissioning artwork from California-based artists for state-funded projects, or, in cases of federally funded projects, keeping the telephone calls, email blasts, and social media promotion limited to eyes in California. The result was work that left Knight cold, made by artists he saw as “ill-equipped” and prone to “kitsch.” To keep artwork bounded by the communities surrounding the stations was a noble ideal but an inferior approach to commissioning artwork, Knight argued:

“Artists …  were urged strongly to research the history of the neighborhood surrounding their particular stations. Themes that grow from neighborhood history may have appealed to the vanity of neighborhood meetings, but it’s no way to commission art.”

On the Purple And Red lines at the Civic Center/Grand Park Station, Jonathan Borofsky, “I Dreamed I Could Fly” (nd)

Knight adjudicated swiftly, giving his verdict after only hours of hopping on and off the train — 30 stations judged in less time it takes to make a day trip for drinks in Palm Springs.

One weekend, three latinx teens, wearing gear fit for the Tour de France, snicker among themselves, threatening each other with ribald jokes. It is inappropriate, juvenile, but for frequent riders, expected from teenagers. They are of a genealogy. They are rude but, essentially, harmless. The youngest hasn’t earned his sea legs. He surfs the train’s sudden jolts as though drunk. There are missteps and he almost falls over more than once. As we leave Expo/Bundy station, he braces against acceleration with his right heel, anticipating the floor of the train car. Instead, he hears a scream. A woman, older, white, and with an accent that seems right in place in Coney Island, yells that he hit her foot. She calls him careless and demands that he apologize. He does, but under his breath. He shakes his head. Another sudden acceleration, another thud against the woman’s foot. One more half-hearted apology. The woman’s anger is understandable, but it is also clear she has never ridden a train before.

As we near Palms station, the boys make fun of the woman’s insistence on propriety, insulting her in both English and Spanish until she leaves for another seat further away.

At Palms station, Shizu Saldamando’s work feature illustrations of people etched onto ceramic panels painted to look like wood. The station is above grade, sitting on an overpass parallel to Interstate 10. All that separates the station from one of the busiest highways in the country are a few trees and a flimsy wire fence. Saldamando’s work anchors opposite ends of the platform. They are pencil drawings of break dancers and artists, educators and photographers. They are both neighbors and outsiders. Back on the train, the boys regroup. Then we pass Culver City station. Outside, you can see the water-tower of Sony Pictures.

At the Palms station works by Shizu Saldamando

As a problem of engineering, design, and aesthetics, commissioning art for a rail network with the second biggest ridership in the United States was a gamble. Metro leveraged their bets. Instead of pleasing everybody, Metro aimed for the long-term commuter, a Georgette, who waits for the same train day after day for years. These commuters may be of different races, classes, and each have her own taste — Emsden writing in an op-ed, challenging Knight’s criticism, “There are those who prefer work that is political, provocative, confrontational, abstract, representational, ethic, functional, decorative, beautiful, informative, historical, colorful, text-based, non-text-based, cutting-edge, folksy, hi-tech, lo-tech … and those who have no interest in art whatsoever.” And for each station, another milieu.

Expo Westside, National/Palms Station, work by Shizu Saldamando

Carl Cheng, one of the artists lauded by Knight, defended Metro’s art program by contrasting it to work in a museum or gallery. “Viewing art in the public environment is very different than in a museum or gallery. The well-meaning artwork is not sheltered by the context of the institution.” Work in a museum can exist in a vacuum, as though on a showroom floor, where ideas are examined in bright artificial light and context provided on a slip of paper, all air-conditioned, always quiet. Public art, though, is “competing for attention with every piece of material junk, fake architecture, commercial decoration, false facade, screaming billboard and cheap construction that L.A., unfortunately, too often represents.”

In a shopping center on Seventh Street in Downtown Los Angeles, the Expo Line starts, connecting to the Red Line (which goes to Hollywood) and the Blue Line. At street level, it’s parallel to L.A. LIVE, a development near the Staples Center and Los Angeles Convention Center. It is a sparkling neighborhood, with billboards for ESPN’s latest programming and neon touting the daily special at Shaquille’s, a restaurant bearing the name of NBA legend and famous Laker alumnus Shaquille O’Neal. Further along is Zara and Target and a steakhouse. 

After a stop south of Interstate 10, you’re by car dealerships and fabric wholesalers. After a curve to the west, you enter the USC campus. There are three stops in the USC campus. The last of these is the Expo/Vermont station. There, you’re within walking distance of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the California African American Museum, and the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. At the corner is Masjid Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, a mosque where on certain days a husband and wife hand out leaflets reinforcing Islam’s devotion to peace. Sometimes, an older Mexican man parks beside the Muslim couple and sells mangos, doused in lime juice and covered with dried chile salt, canopied by a multicolored umbrella.

Expo Line, Vermont station, Jessica Polzin McCoy, “Neighborhood Portrait: Reconstructed” (nd)

Metro selected the watercolors of Jessica Polzin McCoy, an assistant professor of art at Pitzer College, for the Expo/Vermont Station. With vibrant color, the paintings transferred to ceramic not only capture the exteriors of the grand, palatial homes in the historic West Adams neighborhood that extends from the station (West Adams homed wealthy white estates before the Great Depression) but also depict scenes of interiors, foregrounding domestic life. McCoy based her paintings on photographs she took in the neighborhood. Residents welcomed McCoy and her camera into their gardens, front porches, and living rooms. In one panel, a black couple sit in their kitchen, barefoot, in bright daylight; the man’s back is to us, the woman in profile (her husband is working on a portrait of her against a backdrop of toucans and a rainforest). Another interior is that of a mosque (most likely Masjid Omar Ibn Al-Khattab), where women and men sit against a white wall, a carpet the blue of hydrangeas, shaded by the tessellating, geometric metalwork within window glass. McCoy used a fragmentary perspective, foreground and background shuffling within the same plane, to highlight a kaleidoscopic Los Angeles.

Jessica Polzin McCoy, “Neighborhood Portrait: Reconstructed” (nd)
Jessica Polzin McCoy, “Neighborhood Portrait: Reconstructed” (nd)

At the USC/Jefferson station, I sit behind a large, black man in his 40s. He is wearing a trim gray business suit, neatly pressed and has on Oxfords the color of tanned leather. He also has bad posture, hunched over watching a video on his phone. Because he seems busy, and because he keeps spitting out chewing tobacco to his right, I am hesitant to talk to him. I imagine if I had asked him what he thought about the art on the Expo Line, he’d have shook his head and wondered why I was asking. Impatience is written in the bouncing of a knee against the seat in front. 

At the USC/Jefferson station, Samuel Rodriguez, “Urban Dualities” (nd)
At the USC/Jefferson station, Samuel Rodriguez, “Urban Dualities” (nd)

The artwork at the USC/Jefferson, the first USC stop from downtown, was the first to get my attention. It was made by Samuel Rodriguez, an artist from San Jose, California. Called “Urban Dualities,” the work is a series of fragments and details of life at street level, a collaging of peculiar objects and sights seen while commuting on the train. In one panel, there is a close-up portrait of a man, who, in his contemptible stare and cool, wiry get up, resembles Miles Davis à la Bitches Brew, sneering through sunglasses, attending some corner of his own imagination. There are black and brown hands, clutching at the handles of a bike, feet and knees in motion, and faces obscured by line work, which superimposes the outline of a yet another bike, connecting each panel together, similar in function to the white edges of a typical comic book’s panels.

At the USC/Jefferson station, Samuel Rodriguez, “Urban Dualities” (nd)

In the end, what does the artwork commissioned by Metro say about Los Angeles? Although that question may be naive to ask, the artwork on the Expo Line did leave me wondering what the hell was going on. Truth sometimes hits like a stench. First, it is felt in the gut, and then, in cahoots with memory, it brings forth a new part of yourself. Instead of thinking of Los Angeles as a single entity, and seeing the artwork as a reflection of the city, I was drawn to the communities who lived near the platforms (and who had a say in selecting the art), rode alongside the polyglot commuters, and when I arrived home, wrote a few stories about what I saw. Like many other people of color, I took pride in seeing people like me in the artwork — men, who may have been suffering PTSD, lording over a panel like some Adonis, and women, artists, educators, and ordinary folks who were photographed or illustrated as oracles, preachers, and gods.

I take one last trip with a friend. We plan nothing formal, just a day to capture a few portraits. We decide to walk from the Expo/Vermont station to Expo/Crenshaw. As we near Western Avenue, we notice something strange across the street. The train is in between, and it rushes past us a couple of times. But it is quiet otherwise. From one home come sounds of a television. From another we hear the cries of a parrot, barks from a dog. A stop ahead of Expo/Crenshaw is Farmdale station, where you can see Los Angeles in its entirety. As we get close to what we think is garbage, it becomes clear we are looking at what didn’t survive a family’s eviction. I bend down. The day is bright and the air is cool. The family must have left behind this chest of drawers because it is broken and splintered. All around are other abandoned items: underwear printed with Disney princesses, photographs and junk mail, fridge magnets and school assignments. The train passes us again. The sight of a family’s wreckage is a portrait of two timelines, each collapsing onto the other, a family displaced as Los Angeles’s future roars past. I can’t put my finger on what the hell is going on in Los Angeles — neither the art on the Metro nor the city itself makes sense.

Judithe Hernandez, “Untitled” (nd) at the terminus of the Expo Line

I am a journalist based in Brooklyn and a small town in West Texas, down Interstate 10 more than 900 miles from Los Angeles. I am a Tejano, and writing a few briefs is how art on the Expo Line spoke to me. Los Angeles is an eerie place that is home to some of the most beautiful cultures, people, and art in the world. And if that works for you, then the art on the Metro lines, which is just as strange as the city itself, might work for you too.

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