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Photography Turns Street Art and Murals into a Complete Urban Collage

With Los Angeles street artists embracing the use of traditional murals to engage public spaces, it gives Writing on the Wall a good reason to look closely at individual works in Southern California. As we have seen, how a mural came to be, or how an artist approaches a space, adds backstory to a wall and its surroundings.

When one takes a closer look at murals through a photograph, it shows how they share space with the immediate environment -- and begins to resemble early 20th century photo-montage collage. The installation becomes an assemblage.

Or in the case of street art, the wall as random public space takes on a major characteristic of visual fragments within a collage. It becomes a found object.

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With or without that creative strategy of using fixed environment as part of the overall image, a photograph makes an additional transformation the public space reality, sometimes in conflict with the artist's intentions.

Motive and artist's intent aside, the popularity of this form of public art is based not only on street art's rebellion from the disenchanted, or the storied tradition of cultural identity in ethnic murals, but also the camera. Through photographs, seeing a mural isn't just a street experience; it's a shared experience that also extends the potentially limited shelf life of street art and graffiti.

Collage in the Arts District is seen often by chance, like the Hewitt Street facing wall of the former Blooms General Store (above). The wall goes through a constant transformation of images layered and torn -- a deconstruction that documents the progression of street art in that neighborhood. The battered brick and makeshift curtains, with a bench that now blends in, is a contrast to the sidewalk still life to the right that shows the corner is not abandoned. It all becomes part of the overall image.

Redemption of Angels I Instagram by FIND Art Magazine

Giving the impression of having been hastily thrown up on an available wall, the collaboration by FIN Dac, Christina Angelina, and THEFL, called "Redemption of Angels," now takes over a choice spot in the Arts District. Located at Fourth Place and Merrick, the wall and whatever mural it holds is in direct line of sight from Traction Avenue, jumping at you as you make a turn. The instant decaying life of ephemeral street art is mixed with the grit of some of the city's oldest buildings, which like the angels, are posed back-to-back. The wall's progress and completion has been documented by FIND.

JR Wrinkles the Arts District I Photo by Ed Fuentes

Street art's application will vary, from being an ongoing and planned strategy, to making image and scale specific to the space. French artist JR's "Wrinkles" wheat-paste series is an example of the latter, using international urban space as a backdrop. When JR was installing his work in the Arts District, the archaic telephone lines, itself a symbolic image of the former industrial section of town, contrasted with the glimmer of the Los Angeles skyline in the distance.

Richard Wyatt Jr.'s Jazz in Hollywood I Photo by Alan Pavlik for Just Above Sunset

It would be impossible to shoot Richard Wyatt Jr.'s "Jazz in Hollywood, 1945-1972" without the Capitol Records building in the background, as seen in this photo by Alan Pavlik. It would seem incomplete without the iconic Hollywood landmark that towers over the center figure of Nat "King" Cole, and on the right days, set against a blue sky working as negative space. Along with other photos of the mural with the same composition, the foreground of a filled parking lot becomes a timeline, marked by the make and model of the cars. As for the wall, the idea of its location was not an accident -- the artist had his eye on that wall "for a while," as told to Downbeat Magazine.

Johanna Poethig's Calle de la Eternidad I Photo by Helen Ly for viewfromaloft.org

In one of the final shots of "Calle de la Eternidad," taken when the mural was still on the wall facing Broadway, the arms float out from the roofs of smaller buildings, set against the glass towers on Bunker Hill. Photographer Helen Ly finds how the plane of windows, seen on brick and concrete buildings, is interrupted by the steep hillside patch of Angel's Knoll.

Frank Romero, Going to the Olympics I Photo by Robin Dunitz, courtesy MCLA

You can go through the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles online archives to see how photographer Robin Dunitz captured Los Angeles' legacy murals. With Frank Romero's "Going to the Olympics," now nearing its completed restoration by MCLA, the mural as seen through Dunitz's lens appears to have a road as a roof. Even in this photo, the motion of the single car on Arcadia Street, above the mural, has you picture the cars on the freeway, even though they are out of frame, reaffirming Romeo's imagery.

Noa Bornstein, Magritte in L.A I Photo by Ben Martin, courtesy the artist.

This all comes back to the lost mural by Noa Bornstein, "Magritte in Los Angeles," a 1984 homage to the surrealist Rene Magritte, who experimented with images as an abstraction in the 1920s. His approach to collages -- playing with how images and words can differ through symbolism -- came to an ironic moment when a billboard in the background seemed to want to blend in with the mural. People thought it was part of the piece, according to Bornstein late last year.

Much of the photography by professionals and amateurs shows that this larger collage aesthetic may be a factor when fans of street art, graffiti, or murals, decide how one piece works better than others. In looking at the context of the art working with the environment, they are usually complex layers of symbolism, sometimes relying on appropriation; layers of multiple -isms mixed with city planning or decay.

Or as Bornstein warned us in her 1984 piece, Magritte's surreal abstraction is our visual reality.


About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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