Walking the Aesthetic Precipice
For decades I have practiced my art in a peculiar way, my brushes and palette being other people, both individually and in groups. I recently had the great pleasure of parachuting in to lend a hand to the realization of a mural, Taiji Terasaki’s “Recipes to Nourish Communities,” created and installed at the Mural Conservancy headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. I know that Taiji and others would acknowledge that I did some of the troubleshooting over the course of the year, as it went from concept to the front of the building. But, however understandably, this would be at least partially incorrect.
Homeless encampments line the sidewalk along Fifth Street in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 11, 2020. Courtesy of Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times
The building on which Terasaki’s mural now resides is an oddity in multiple ways, a true white elephant. It sits adjacent to the L.A. Police Department’s motor pool, a five-story parking structure. It is only a few blocks south of City Hall, one of a scrum of public buildings of varying degrees of architectural interest, the best being the California Department of Transportation building around the corner. Next to the motor pool structure is the former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, built 147 years ago and now the redoubt of the Redbird restaurant. To the immediate south, in fact just across the street, lies the northwestern edge of what has been known for generations as Skid Row. The homeless population there serves as a reminder that the urgent civic desire to put an end to homelessness simply misses the point. For myself, Skid Row has long been a reminder that humanity’s normal condition, for most of our species’ existence, has been homelessness. And the struggle to secure food and shelter has long been our central purpose, the activity which has occupied nearly all of our collective time on earth.
MCLA Space, interior view. Works by Taiji Terasaki (foreground) and Kent Twitchell
That we envision a city such as Los Angeles freed of homelessness is itself a remarkable, no, a historic development. That most of us do nothing to contribute to its end beyond holding others accountable is one of our central moral shortcomings, but that so many among us have mitigated the condition in multiple ways is miraculous, and not very profitable in the ordinary sense. That is what Terasaki’s mural is about, and why it occupies a prominent position in my virtual canvas.
In the very non-political world of geographical ecology the surface of the planet we occupy consists of any number of environmental systems. It is possible to visit some that are barren to the point of appearing empty and uninhabitable. This is, of course, never the case, as any number of National Geographic, Disney, and Richard Attenborough nature documentaries explain. A local national park (thank you Senator Feinstein) offers just such a first impression of desolation, only to slowly reveal a wealth of natural beauty. Joshua Tree’s unique character and richness are a product of a much larger grouping of three overlapping ecosystems: The Mojave Desert, the Colorado Desert, and the Pinyon Pine and Juniper Zone.
That triangulation is analogous to the peculiar location that “Recipes to Nourish Communities” occupies. Civic Center, the central city commercial and arts district, and Skid Row. The divergent populations associated with each … well, they could hardly be more numerous or distinct. Perhaps there is no more dramatic and varied divergence of the human population on Earth (although I would not bet on that).
Taiji Terasaki, "Ron Finley," 2023, ink on aluminum panel
So why would the Mural Conservancy not get the heck out of there? Why put the Mural Conservancy, with its modest mission of legacy public mural preservation, in such a location, adjacent to the police motor pool, a fancy restaurant, massive public buildings, and the largest homeless population in the country? Why place it where no important art gallery would dare venture, where graffiti on walls and windows is virtually guaranteed, where matters of security and maintenance are topmost in local businesses’ minds, and where many political careers get hemmed in? The answer lies in the question.
And one of the most complete conceptual responses is Terasaki’s mural. The artist, myself, and those of us who know the neighborhood understand very well that the mural itself is an open invitation for abuse. The MCLA space has a street facade that is two stories of just about nothing but glass. It all pretty much says “tag me!” I’m not saying that does not happen, that somehow by announcing its presence MCLA enjoys a special status on the street. Yet, to some degree, it does. The first tags may appear on the new mural this very day. But for some reason none have appeared yet. I am not mystified.
The reason is the imagery, a visual celebration of a mixed bag of food purveyors. “Fallen Fruit” consists of a pair of artists (Austin Young and David Burns) whose maps of fruit trees that anyone can collect food from are early classics of the social practice genre. Ron Finley Project is the product of one individual’s casual decision to grow food on the ordinary parkway strip along the curb in his south L.A. neighborhood. Alma Backyard Farms, as its name indicates, is a model farming operation that any urban or suburban family can develop if they so desire. And finally there is the Los Angeles Mission, the epitome of the Skid Row soup kitchen going back to the Great Depression, and which has become so much more.
Taiji Terasaki, "Fallen Fruit (Austin Young and
David Allen Burns)," 2023, ink on aluminum panel
Knowingly or intuitively, the people in the neighborhood, whether they arrive in suit and tie, or dressed in the only clothes they own, see this. What does it mean to them? Is it mere street decor, yet another tool of pending gentrification? Or is it a silent promise of a better future? Or is it really just an ad for MCLA, the up until now silent occupant of the space?
The answer, at least for now, is: Stay tuned.
Taiji Terasaki, "Recipes to Nourish Communities," 2023, ink on five aluminum panels