L.A. Art Goes BOOM For Real
Kent Twitchell has the kind of career that provides a blueprint for aspiring professional visual artists. If you’ve spent time driving in Los Angeles then you’ve undoubtedly seen his work. Huge, photo-realist murals that depict subjects staring back at the viewer. His art includes a giant image of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra; eight stories high, overlooking the Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. Twitchell didn’t set out to paint murals — he started out in the “hippie days” when it wasn’t unusual to put images on walls. At the time he began painting his Monuments to American Cultural Heroes his passion for it led him to paint more and more murals. In other words, he was driven.
Twitchell has been an artist since childhood. When he went to kindergarten the teacher made “a big fuss” over his drawings. His uncle taught him one stroke lettering when he was 14, and by the time he was in high school, he was able to paint letters on trucks. This was in the 1950s. Kent became used to seeing his work in public — on trucks and other businesses. He credits this early experience as the fundamental reason he became a public artist. After a stint as an illustrator in the Air Force, he became an illustrator for JCPenney in Atlanta. After a year in this work he moved west to Los Angeles and stayed with his uncle in Monterey Park. At that time college beckoned and he attended East Los Angeles College, Cal State L.A. and then Otis College of Art and Design.
The Los Angeles Mural Conservatory was largely started because Twitchell’s The Freeway Lady was painted over by the building owner. Initially, Twitchell felt like the owner of building could do what he liked, but members of the L.A. art community were irate — especially Bill Lasarow, publisher and editor of ArtScene. The initial lawsuit was won in 1992, which established the law which states that building owners are required to notify the artist if they plan to paint over or destroy an existing mural. The artist must be given notice so they can move or archive the mural.
These days, Twitchell has finished his second version of The Freeway Lady at Los Angeles Valley College. Next he will create his second version of Edward Ruscha, which is going up at the American Hotel in the Arts District of Downtown L.A. When asked about retirement, the 73-year-old says that he never thinks about retiring because what he’s doing is not really work. It is just play and most people who do what they love are just playing hard.
Levi Ponce is the heir apparent to the large scale Los Angeles, (and San Fernando Valley) mural scene. Inspired by Kent Twitchell in his youth, and his father, Hector Ponce, who is also a muralist; Ponce was five when they moved from the Pico-Union neighborhood in Los Angeles to Pacoima — a community located deep in the San Fernando Valley. He was struck by the lack of art in Pacoima compared to the realist murals by Twitchell that he missed from living in Central Los Angeles. In 2011, at the age of 24, Ponce set out to bring large-scale public art to Pacoima. At the time, he asked the city for funding and was turned down. While city officials wouldn’t financially support his vision, the community of Pacoima donated paint and sometimes residents would hang out while he painted. They would bring music, water and food and some even picked up a paintbrush to help. The community was hungry for art and appreciated his efforts. A feature on Good Day LA brought a lot of attention to his work on Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, and the area quickly became a destination for artistic tours of Los Angeles. Mayor Garcetti even chose this area as part of the Great Streets Initiative. Ponce’s vision is to continue to bring art to underserved communities sharing his knowledge with others who want to create community based art. Keep an eye on www.muralmile.org to stay abreast of his work.
Bunnie Reiss is a recent transplant from Oakland to Los Angeles. Educated on full ride scholarships from the SF Art Institute and Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in France. She took education seriously and achieved a master’s degree in painting. Her latest body of work is based on Plato’s Cosmology. Plato believed the universe needs order and symmetry to exist. That it does not exist in chaos. Her images and characters reflect symmetry and balance taking on both cosmic and human form. Some characters are depicted as delivering messages, searching for their mates and representing their past, present and future selves.
Reiss’ process starts in the sketchbook. She is “big on process” and takes her time drawing and taking notes as she draws. When a bigger idea comes she goes through her previous sketchbooks to map out a story using existing characters. Once it is time to paint, Reiss mixes her own colors. Years of studying color have given her the ability to get the exact color of her vision. She doesn’t shy away from bright colors and paints freehand. She says that she likes to paint on rocks as it’s good practice and she likes the curvature.
With regard to her move from Oakland to L.A., Reiss says that L.A. is better for her at this stage in her career because the city is full of creative people. She says, “It’s one of the only big cities in the United States that can house artists and give them projects and income to survive. With that comes an energy that doesn’t always sustain but is really great to be involved with for as long as it lasts.”
Contemporary painter, Aaron Rivera, made a tough decision more than two years ago with his partner. They decided to leave the changing social landscape of long-time home, San Francisco, for Los Angeles. It is a move many San Francisco artists are making. Ever since, Rivera has continued to find inspiration and create opportunity in the diverse communities of Los Angeles that are reflected in his work.
His latest collection titled Monsters of Leisure is a series of paintings depicting “hedonistic states of revelry…pure emotion, with subjects who are totally oblivious to the concept of responsibility,” as Rivera describes. The bird-like figures portrayed in the leisurely scenes are, as he elaborates, “stylistic vehicle to play with shapes and color while illustrating scenes that people could project their own references onto.” This is reflective of his early inspiration by Greek art which tends to give dimensional storytelling about society.
Today, Rivera’s inspiration has him earning a living in a city burgeoning with possibilities by way of dedicated hard work. He has also found new opportunities professionally in the field of stop-motion animation. His work continues to evolve since his migration south. The artist finds himself more and more influenced by people, a heavy consumption of a variety of media, and the local scenes.
Rivera is fueled by time spent with his family and friends, but that does not prevent him from enjoying travel. He loves the “textured and alive” scene in Mexico City. Back at home in L.A., he explores the assortment of inspiring neighborhoods. Some of his favorite hotspots include Pine and Crane on Sunset Boulevard and the Commissary at the Line Hotel. Rivera also likes outdoor adventures, opting on weekends to leave the car behind and rent a bike, or hop the subway to Pershing Square and roam the popular Grand Central Market, or meander in the fashion district. Sometimes inspiration is easily found in a leisurely walk in his local ‘hood’ of Los Feliz.
Axel Wilhite is a local painter who was born and raised in Los Angeles. He is currently living and working near LAX in Hawthorne; he jokingly says that the township is a few years away from being an art mecca. With no formal training in art he does have a sensitivity to storytelling and creating characters. He loves to bring audiences to strange places by offering familiar images in a skewed context. His latest series of work involves painting on the bills of failed Zimbabwe currency. In a world where economies collapse in the blink of an eye, he loves the fascinating absurdity of painting seascapes, intricate insects or the flaming Deepwater Horizon rig on one hundred trillion dollar bills. He’s working on thirty pieces for a show in Paris scheduled for December.
Raised by a sculptor dad and art conservator mom, he’s been surrounded by art his whole life. After witnessing his father struggle, he did not consider making a living by creating art. He attained a graduate degree in fictional writing at NYU but found that he couldn’t afford to live in New York. He ventured to Japan to continue his Kendo martial arts training while studying swordsmanship. Living in Japan made him feel like a “cultural fish out of water” and he had difficulty connecting with people. Harnessing his cultural anxiety into art, he started painting on Japanese menko cards. Thus began his style of painting on pre-printed surfaces from menko to Audubon bird prints and antique maps.
While he doesn’t show much in Los Angeles — he does get invitations to show in Europe — his fascinating artwork is available to view online or at his studio in Hawthorne.
Bryan Ricci moved to Los Angeles from New York fifteen years ago to study for his graduate degree at Otis College of Art and Design. That was after finishing his undergraduate degree from SUNY in upstate New York. He supplements his income by teaching and feels teaching art is good for his own practice. Painting is isolating, while accepting a teaching role forces one to be in the company of others, and to reflect on one’s own practice. Ricci’s painting style has evolved from landscapes created in graduate school to his recent bold and colorful abstract pieces. Pushing paint through the back of raw linen creates his current groups of paintings. His work starts with a vision of a group of colors. In the beginning of his process he’s not entirely sure of the outcome. For Ricci, it’s about the “physicality of the paint” versus the actual picture. He interacts with his work by using new layers of pigment as it reacts to previous layers. He knows his painting is complete when his irritation level reaches a breaking point! The process seems to be working for him because his paintings are beautiful. It’s important to see Ricci’s work in person and there are a couple painting available to view at Sherle Wagner in Beverly Hills.
Jovi Schnell lives in Angeleno Heights with her husband who is a wood worker at the woodshop collective, Off The Saw. And, yes, speaking with Schnell feels like walking into an episode of Portlandia. She is lovely, bursting with creativity and says that she gathers inspiration from a hovering vision in her third eye area that emerges on long walks, while bathing, or doodling in her notebook. She’s been working in Los Angeles for several years but is now studying for an MFA from UC Berkeley. Her work has the look of Folk Art but she’s hesitant to describe it as such for fear of not seeming “accessible.” She feels that it’s important for her work to be viewed by different audiences, and her public installations in places such as skate parks are her solution to artwork being available to a wider audience.
Schnell’s creative process starts with a massive flow of ideas. From there she jots down her ideas and literally pulls them out of a bucket to let kismet run its course. Her process goes from thought to brush to paper working diligently. Her collage pieces are very intricate and led to her work using cutouts. She started that series with paint samples from the local hardware store. They were free, colorful and inspiring.
She agrees that over the last decade, Los Angeles has been sourcing great artists. The draw has been the caliber of cultural institutions arriving in Los Angeles as well as the flow of artists moving to L.A. creating a large community of artists with access to space. She adds that the downside is certain galleries are not surviving unless they partake in huge international shows such as Art Basel in Miami.
The current darling of the L.A. art scene is Deedee Cheriel who just sold out her August 2015 show at MK Gallery. Hailing from Eugene, Oregon she has traveled all over the world which has critically influenced Cheriel’s work. When home in Eugene, she’s surrounded by chickens, bikes, blackberries and organic gardens. It’s a hard adjustment to return to the competitive landscape of Los Angeles where dinner party conversations revolve around the latest professional achievement. She says that she tries not to define herself by accomplishments in an effort to avoid setting herself up for unhappiness. She sticks to working on subjects which are “deeply important” to her and there she finds peace in her work.
Cheriel moved to Los Angeles in her late 20s pursuing a creative life. The Pacific Northwest had yet to develop into the creative mecca that it is today. Her first project in L.A. was as a production designer on a semi-autobiographical movie she co-wrote about a girl rock band. To this day, Cheriel finds that the production and film community support her work. Creative people consume and value art, so they buy it. She’s worked on and off in the film industry to support her ability to work on her art — her film gigs were her “day job” and afforded her a flexible painting schedule.
Cheriel’s style is constantly evolving. Her use of recurring characters is not intentional but is now part of an aesthetic expectation. While Cheriel was living in Santiago, Chile, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez she fell in love with magical realism. At that time her bandmate’s girlfriend had a pitchy voice and they lived on the 22nd floor of an urban high-rise. This is the precise moment when she imagined the woman as a bird living in a cage. It was the first time she though of painting people as animals, a style that permeates her work to this day.