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The Enduring Appeal of Jackson Pollock's 'Mural'

Moving from the guest contributor chair to a Spring residency is G. James Daichendt, who will be joining "Writing on the Wall" to share his perspective of murals from the lens of street art scholar. He is the author of the new book "Shepard Fairey Inc. Artist/Professional/Vandal" and "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art." While he may be Professor and Associate Dean at Azusa Pacific University in southern California, we just call him Professor Street Art (E.F.)

Los Angeles hosts a proud tradition of mural painting, along with a surge of graffiti and street artists that have taken over hundreds of walls in and around Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock's grandiose contribution, entitled "Mural," reminds us how far we have come as an art community, yet it's also a sobering reminder of the high standards set by the historical giant.

Pollock's restored painting is currently on-view at The Getty Center, from March 11-June 1, 2014. Recently the dulled and yellowed work underwent an extensive restoration and conservation process, which is highlighted in the small but strong exhibition. On loan from The University of Iowa, the image was returned to its former self and is apt for comparing to the populist works that are springing up in the city of angels.

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Pollock pulls much of his influences from the West. Born in Wyoming with stints in California and Arizona, his interest in Native American sand painting, Mexican muralism, and his general cowboy persona all contributed towards his growth as an abstract expressionist. Educated for a brief time at the Art Students League in New York City and reacting against his mentor Thomas Hart Benton, alcoholism took his life early when he died in a tragic car accident. Leaving behind a short but energetic body of work, it allowed the myth of Pollock to grow substantially in the ensuing decades.

"Mural' represents the tail end of the story of modernism as art fell further afield from the academic notions of painting and sculpture. It's a significant departure for the artist personally, as the expressionistic qualities of the work wiggle and writhe, almost shaking free the brush he held in his hand. Pollock shared to a colleague that, "It was a stampede...[of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface." The layered symbolism and the raw application of paint reverberate off the wall and establish a powerful emotive response long after it was painted in 1943.

Created just before Pollock developed his infamous drip technique, a development that smacked one of the final nails in the coffin of modernism, the huge canvas was a monumental feat for the emerging artist to physically prepare, tearing down a wall in his studio so he could fit the 8' 1 1/4" x 19' 10" canvas inside. It was purposely measured to cover the entire entry wall of Peggy Guggenheim's new townhouse.

Considering the achievements in technology and accessibility, artists now scale several stories to paint everything from abstract designs to realistic portraits. A mural inside is hardly comparable to Pollock's painting, and the diminutive dimensions barely register as a mural by today's standards. In addition, the instant access we receive to the artist's studio through social media and the Internet leaves little to the imagination. The transparency of their lives and work does not allow myths like Pollock's to grow.

However, the superficial subjects and low hanging fruit that are often the target of street artists pale in comparison to Pollock's liberating work. Today's pop culture references and self-advertisements will mean little to our great-grandchildren. Issues that are important to who we are as humans reach deep within us and explore truth in life altering ways. Pollock's internal demons, his primal markings, and raw expression never tire because they are in all of us. Issues that are consistent for generations, the work endures and continues to be meaningful because of this individual engagement combined with its historical contributions to the larger story of art.

Good art delights and engages the entire person. Great art does this each time one revisits the work. With each subsequent interaction, there is more to learn about the work and oneself. Pollock's "Mural" may pale in comparison to the advances in mural technology, but it continues to teach us what makes a work of art great.

Pollock's 'Mural' at The Getty

Photos: Ed Fuentes

About the Author

Jim Daichendt is Associate Dean and Professor of Art History at Azusa Pacific University.
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