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January 5 - 22, 2005 at VIVA Gallery, Valley

by Nancy Kay Turner

Artist Kent Twitchell at work.

"Lillian Bronson," 1974, graphite
on gessoed masonite, 52 3/4 x 40".
Los Angeles is the mural capital of the United States, with well over one thousand outdoor murals, and Kent Twitchell, a photorealist portrait painter, is our premiere muralist.  His monumental, frontal portraits of artist friends (Jim Morphesis and Lita Alburqueque in the “Seventh Avenue Altarpiece”), character actors (Lillian Bronson in “Old Lady of the Freeway”), art students, actors (“The Steve McQueen Monument”) and musicians (the LA Chamber Orchestra in “Harbor Freeway Overture”) are among the most recognizable of all of Los Angeles’ murals.

Many of these murals are on the side of buildings near freeways, and can only be seen as one drives along, casting furtive glances upwards.  So it is indeed a guilty pleasure to be able to examine with more care the remnants of full size cartoons (the grided line drawings that muralists use to transfer the image to a wall site), replete with numbers and little sketches affixed to them, exquisitely detailed pencil studies, photographs and parts of murals themselves at the current “Faces In Time” exhibit.

Twitchell’s “The Old Lady of the Freeway,” also referred to as the Freeway Lady, has unintentionally been his most controversial.  This mural (painted in 1974 and one of LA’s first freeway murals) depicts a spry, elderly lady holding a multicolored, knitted afghan, which undulates lazily out into a dark and mysterious night.  Her piercing blue eyes and halo of white hair create an other-worldly, yet strangely comforting image.  Twitchell picked the model because she reminded him of both of his great-grandmothers.  This image overlooked the 101 Freeway in Echo Park and was a hit with commuters, who were astonished to find the mural gone one day.  The owner had precipitously whitewashed the mural in order to put up an ad.  Twitchell, who had not been notified, sued the owner, citing the California Art preservation Act of 1980, and was awarded $125,000 to recreate the mural (it also precipitated the founding of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles to help preserve public murals).  Now, some thirty years after the mural was created, Twitchell is about to restore the mural on the side of the VIVA Gallery’s building.

The exhibition chronicles the story of the mural’s inception and subsequent unauthorized removal, as well as Twitchell’s unsuccessful efforts to preserve and restore the Freeway Lady on its original wall.  News clippings and Twitchell’s personal correspondence all document his very public trials and tribulations, and serve as a cautionary tale to artists who consider executing public art (think Richard Serra and Cal Tech).

But the real delight is seeing works such as Twitchell’s gorgeous preparatory sketch for the mural of Lillian Bronson (the Freeway Lady), which is a 30” x 40”, pencil drawing on gessoed board.  Bronson is frontal, and is rendered in miniscule crosshatching reminiscent of the silver point technique.  Twitchell’s consummate skill transforms her into a glowing, luminescent, and almost shimmering image.  Wispy white hair frames her face like a delicate halo.  Her hands are clasped demurely in front of her, and the bulky, beautifully patterned afghan is casually folded over her arm.  The composition of this image is more static than the final image on the mural.  It is instructive to see his process.

This exhibition is like those “making of. . .” documentaries, which allow the viewer backstage. The fear is that seeing the discreet parts will lessen the magic of the process or of the actual mural itself.  However, this exhibit enhances the viewer’s knowledge and whets one’s sense of delight.  Also on exhibit are fifty photographs by students from Valley College entitled “A Day In The Valley”.