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Photographer Parses the Politics and Relevance of L.A.’s Murals and Marks

This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

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Ken Gonzales-Day is best known for his conceptually-rich photographs. Notable among them is his “Erased Lynching” series, where he digitally removed execution victims from vintage postcards to draw attention to the expunging of Latinos from the history of lynching, which is often associated with particular races and geographical areas. During the Fall ’17 season, Gonzales-Day’s work will be exhibited at Luis De Jesus Gallery, The Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University, Lancaster Museum of Art and History, and the Skirball Cultural Center. An artist with a sincere interest in art history and cultural issues, his exhibition at the Skirball, “Surface Tension,” engages the mural landscape of Los Angeles and the many issues surrounding graphic arts in the public square. 

Deservedly, Gonzales-Day is enjoying a significant amount of attention and reflection for his work during the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which features Latino and Latin American Art at institutions and galleries across Southern California. For the Skirball, Gonzales-Day’s involvement began when the center commissioned him to create a new body of work. Inspired by the work of Anita Brenner (1905-1974), a Mexican born, American Jewish writer that played an integral role in promoting Mexican art and culture in the United States. The exhibit entitled: “Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico” is planned to run concurrently to Gonzales-Day’s at the Skirball, so he could build upon and react to it as a historical foundation. Brenner was an integral part of the art and cultural scene of Mexico in the early 20th century. The exhibition explores her important role with works by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Frida Kahlo and how she promoted and educated American audiences to the role of Modernism south of the border.

Ken Gonzales-Day, “The Elixir,” mural by Patrick Henry Johnson, Crenshaw Blvd at Stocker St, Leimert Park, 2011. © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day. Ken Gonzales-Day, “La Casa Azul,” mural by MUTE, Van Nuys Blvd. at Ralston Ave., Pacoima, 2016. | © 2017 Ken Gonzales
Ken Gonzales-Day, “The Elixir,” mural by Patrick Henry Johnson, Crenshaw Blvd at Stocker St, Leimert Park, 2011. © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day. Ken Gonzales-Day, “La Casa Azul,” mural by MUTE, Van Nuys Blvd. at Ralston Ave., Pacoima, 2016. | © 2017 Ken Gonzales

Gonzales-Day’s work has explored a variety of conceptual frameworks that range from the construction of race to museum display. The Mexican-American experience is particularly prominent, and he often utilizes constructed photo methods that range in their final production from traditional 18x24 images to billboard displays. He initially reacted to the concept of this show by asking, “What if Mexican muralism continued today?” So he started by making a list of murals that he could explore around Los Angeles. It began with a walking tour and then eventually evolved to driving around the city.

One of the first murals documented for this project was a humble tribute to Ezell Ford, a young man that was shot and killed by the LAPD in 2014. It has since become an important public space of mourning and remembrance for the community. It was even vandalized at one point yet was quickly returned to its original state, a sign of its importance. Gonzales-Day also set his sights on some of the most recognizable and celebrated murals in Los Angeles. Judy Baca’s The Great Wall is one of these cultural treasures, a magnificent mural addressing the history of ethic peoples of California. According to the artist “I’ve shot several thousand images. I would even go back and photograph again, and of course, they would change. It’s a moving target, and the city is constantly expressing itself and it of course changes. These photographs capture a bit of that.”

Ken Gonzales-Day, RV Painted with Clouds, Oxnard St. at Coldwater Canyon Ave., Valley Glen. | © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day PST LALA
Ken Gonzales-Day, RV Painted with Clouds, Oxnard St. at Coldwater Canyon Ave., Valley Glen. | © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day PST LALA

The Skirball exhibit was narrowed down to just over 150 photographs, and the artist is quick to acknowledge that this number can’t possibly represent all of Los Angeles: “Not all neighborhoods have graphic art and it raises the question of what is a mural? However, I have determined that is not my area; my artwork is a visual response to these debates. I wanted to expand the conversation that Anita Brenner begins.” Several themes emerged according to Gonzales-Day including issues of gentrification, the role of murals in communities, the professionalization of graphic art vs. illegal products, and the role of celebrity in murals.

Gonzales-Day explains: “Initially what is signage and what is a mural was raised as a question.” Whether it’s the Hollywood sign or the plethora of paintings and media along the Sunset Strip, the weight of these images for understanding the identity of the city is important.  Whether these images reflect the city or are producing an image of what we want L.A. to be, the relationship between media and commerce is complicated. The artist continues: “There are many more murals that were not included that are connected to pop art.” The plethora of illustrative murals often fall in-between the worlds of street art, murals and advertising. The focus of Gonzales-Day’s project is “…a very different set of ideas…there will be graffiti and Mexican muralism and sometimes the two are combined.”  

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The artists whose names are identifiable have all been informed about the exhibit and their role within it. But Gonzales-Day is careful not to conflate his agenda as an artist with the muralists: “My process is separate, and this is not about reflecting their practice... I am not trying to channel their production…my question was to make the connection with Anita Brenner.” This is evident in how the photos are cropped; some close in on specific characteristics of the murals while others capture the artwork in its entirety.

Murals can range from highly commercial works to illegal pieces that are not sanctioned. And sometimes the same artist can practice each type. These multiple identities vary if it’s daytime and paid versus nighttime and illegal. The relationship to murals and gentrification is another important point to consider. The Arts District downtown and The Container Yard, a hotbed of graffiti and street art are all included. Gonzales-Day simply asks “If there a relationship between these speedy methods of visually changing a neighborhood community and the gentrification of neighborhood? Is it beautification or gentrification?”

Ken Gonzales-Day, “Walking the Wires,” mural by Kim West, 806 Mateo St. between Violet St. and E. 7th St., Arts District, 2014. | © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day PST LALA
Ken Gonzales-Day, “Walking the Wires,” mural by Kim West, 806 Mateo St. between Violet St. and E. 7th St., Arts District, 2014. | © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day 

The artist also hopes that these ideas will be accessible and usable for younger viewers as well. A map of Los Angeles has been printed on the floor of the cultural center that will have all the locations of the murals. It’s meant as a way to engage the many neighborhoods of the city so one can compare the density of images compared to data like property values. There also is a social media component, where participants can add additional work they discover in the city.

Gonzales-Day feels that “Los Angeles is Latin America. We are linked continents. I tried to think in a broader way. I want visitors to take a moment to think about their relationship to the Americas.“ Overall there is an “Emphasis on the idea of Latin American and Mexican cultural transitions – among others that have adopted them. It’s an opportune time to do this and engage the full fabric of our communities. PST: LA/LA provides a remarkable opportunity to reach out beyond comfort zones and our neighborhoods. I hope it will encourage people to engage beyond the spectacle to the real work to be done.”

Top Image: Ken Gonzales-Day, “Danny,” mural by Levi Ponce, Van Nuys Blvd. at Telfair Ave., Pacoima, 2013. | © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day. 

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