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Murals at El Monte Station: Martin Durazo

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In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse

"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.

"Vamos Juntos": An Interview with Martin Durazo

This is the third of four installments in a series of interviews with artists commissioned by Metro to make murals for the renovated El Monte Bus Station. Click for part one, part two.

Los Angeles is a place of iconic landmarks emblazoned into its perpetually sunlit landscape. This is true, at least in the public imagination. However, as residents in any of Greater L.A.'s infinite number of niches can tell you, sometimes a place is not necessarily defined by specific buildings, historic events, or figures, but rather by the character of its energy. The feel of a community is shaped by the movement of its people and the nature of their exchanges. Martin Durazo's abstract mural at the El Monte bus station captures this city's particular energy as one of a working class community constantly on the go.

Durazo, known for his large-scale abstract paintings and installations, is a rare pick for a public art project such as this. However, the multiple voices in his mural "Vamos Juntos" offer variety and freshness to the largely representational mural collection and opens up new possibilities of interpretation for daily bus commuters. Having grown up an avid bus-rider, Durazo understands the grind of the daily bus commute and infuses his work with a sensibility for urban subcultures, which he intersects with elements of high design. Durazo has exhibited in galleries throughout Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Japan, and two of his original paintings for "Vamos Juntos" is currently exhibiting at C24 Gallery in New York.

When you think of El Monte, what do you think of?

Punk rock. I think of punk rock. Growing up in the '80s I remember going out to El Monte to catch backyard shows. Growing up I went to a lot of different shows, but there was a pretty vibrant punk rock scene in El Monte. It seemed like a way station between L.A. and the Inland Empire or Orange Ccounty. There were a lot of backyard and garage band shows that I would hear about back then and as far as I know, a lot of the young kids are keeping that spirit alive.

"Vamos Juntos," the title of your mural, seems to neatly sum up the experience of people moving collectively around the city, but also toward something. How did you settle on this title?

As a college undergrad, I was accepted to go to an art program in London. And in order to help pay for it, I worked at a car dealership. At the time, in the late '80s, I remember that Ford had this campaign called "Vamos Juntos," which means, going places together. That always stuck with me. That campaign was also the first time that I remember a car company reaching out to a Hispanic market.

I also thought that "Vamos Juntos" encapsulated everything I was going for in terms of my memory of public transportation. I grew up on the bus. My mother was a factory worker and she didn't always have a car, and at a very young age I started riding the bus on my own, making my way to school on the bus, and once I got my bus pass, I never stopped. I made it out to Hollywood and the beach. Somehow "Vamos Juntos" seems like a more appropriate slogan for public transportation than for cars.

What about El Monte were you trying to capture in your mural?

From the inception of the piece I tried to get a hold of the energy of the culture that El Monte has. The landscape is made up of families that have been there forever, and most of them are from a working class that is always on the go -- whether they are going to work or coming from work or just trying to survive. There's energies in the micro-economies that happen from that, like neighborhood vendors, or people that work on each other's cars. Everybody knows somebody that knows how to do something. I tried to capture that. I translate that into color and movement.

This is why I was so happy to have been given the opportunity to do this, because when it comes to public art projects like this, very rarely do abstract pieces get selected. And I think that it was an opportunity to free people to experience their own ideas and their own interpretations and their journey in terms of emotions, through the movement of the work and selection of the colors and see where that takes them. I think that most people don't give it a second thought, but those that do, get lost in it. And I've been told that since the piece went up, people come back to the work and find something new every time. That's really important for a project of this scale, when people are there at the bus station day to day going to work and coming back. This is also why I made a conscious decision to make four separate pieces instead of one overall piece broken up into four parts. I wanted people to be able to look at them individually and look at them over time.

'Voom' | Photo by Martin Durazo, Courtesy of Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority)
'Voom' | Photo by Martin Durazo, Courtesy of Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

Do the panels work together or speak to each other somehow?

I thought each panel had a different voice. And each has its own title. There's "Ojo," which is like an eye. That word for me, growing up in our culture, meant so much. I thought of it as someone's always watching you. It can be negative or positive like a parental spirit where someone's looking after you. But then there's also the superstitious aspect where someone put ojo on you or you have to get rid of it, kind of like a spell or bad vibe. But I always felt that for this piece, the ojo is more protective, looking over people that are looking at it.

"Voom" is obviously the onomatopeia for when vehicles take off. It's the sound of movement. That's all. It's that simple. It's about the sound of movement.

There's "Sunset." There's the logistical sunset, but it's more about the idea of thinking back to pagan times, in which the sunset was thought of as the battle between light and dark. At the bus station, there's people who are there in the morning as the sun begins to rise, and then they're back at sunset at the end of the day.

"Joker Plus Jester," if you look it has this lipstick line but it's not supposed to be representational of a clown. It's an abstraction, but still about having fun and being youthful. Its that simple. If you look at it closely however, its fairly complex in terms of its abstractions.

There are no didactics or text that accompany the panels, so the viewers at the bus station probably wouldn't know that each of your panels has a title and they wouldn't necessarily access the information that goes with the titles. Do you mind?

I don't mind because the originals are separate pieces from the metro panels. In terms of operating within the limits of what public art is, it needs to be simple. You can pull it apart and try to find out as much as you can about it, but really it's meant to give the public the freedom to come up with their own interpretations.

If the aluminum panels are prints, what's become of your originals?

Two of the originals are currently in New York. They are rather large, eight feet tall. I loved working on that scale. Pat Gomez said, you know you don't have to make them actual size, but I didn't mind at all. I thought I might use them for something one day. And sure enough, here we are and two of the panels are in New York. I exhibited the other two panels at Rio Hondo College for the exhibition that took place in February of this year. There was also a panel conversation with all of the artists. That was a great event. It exceeded my expectations because the students were really into it. In terms of an exhibition, it was great. Robert Miller at Rio Hondo is always doing these ambitious exhibitions like the Sur Biennial with all the different artists he pulls in. But this one was a real learning opportunity for everyone because students were able to see beyond the traditional gallery system. Typically, students learn that they can only make a living through showing at galleries and selling their work. And here was a perfect example of working outside of the gallery construct. They saw artists that were given a commission for something that was for the public. They were thinking, wow, I can make a living doing this and its not going to be hidden away gathering dust in someone's collection. It's actually going to be out where thousands of people can see it every day.

Most of your work is exhibited in galleries or other kinds of art spaces. Did you take the fact that your work would live in a bus station into consideration as you made the work?

I didn't think of it as a bus station, I thought of it as a place like any other place where my art could exist, and I was glad that the architecture was very simple and modern so that it would function like an art gallery. Very often I found that architecture will compete with art. So much so that its part of my installation practice. I've often tried to negate the architecture. I've blocked out beams, re-fabricated walls ... but in this case I thought it was perfect. I liked the fact that these aluminum plates were in a sense going to be prints of the paintings. So I felt that there was no limitation in what kind of imagery I could place on them. And I took into consideration the neighborhood and the energy and I thought I could capture more of that through an abstraction that with a photograph or a representational image and in doing so, making it more universal in terms of experience and cross cultural.
Do you have any other thoughts about your mural and the process that you'd like to share?

I just hope that people enjoy the work. And that it inspires the next generation to create work that is a little more experimental.

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