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© 2019

Judith Meyer, unknown publication, 1971, pp. 40–42, pages missing


Art As Big As All Outdoors

Outdoor wall paintings began to crop up regularly in New York City about three years ago, commissioned by the city under the imaginative leadership of Mayor Lindsay. Today, lightning flashes and other brash, colorful designs charge across some of the smudgier sections of that gray jungle. It is appropriate that when large scale street paintings appeared in Los Angeles, they were representational; with the mixture of fantasy and illusion that characterizes this city's best-known art form and industry—film.

Causing the greatest stir are the works of the Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad, four artists all in their twenties, who pool their talents and egos to form a creative unit of extraordinary quality. Their large-scale works presently include two optical-illusory incredibles in Venice, and the better-known Climax Night Club mural, which stretches around the grotesque building on Third St. and La Cienega.

The experience one has in contemplating any of these three paintings is difficult to describe. They loom up and breathe upon you, enveloping· you in quiet, commanding mystery. They are visions—totally accessible, but inexpressible.

Talking to Vic Henderson, Terry Shoonhoven [sic] and Leonard Koren (the fourth member, Jim Frazen, is on a long visit to the East Coast) reminds you that they are true magicians, and will not reveal any more of their tricks than necessary. A question asked of the Squad receives an answer as wise and slippery as a lesson from a Zen master. They all talk slowly and softly. A gentle humor rests upon what they say.

Terry and Vic, who just finished four month's work on the latest painting, look like sunbleached sea shells; blond hair disheveled to their collars.

Leonard, who has been working in and around Hollywood on a film about the Squad, called The LA Fine Arts Squad In Hollywood, has a more controlled look.

Terry usually answers questions first, easing into an idea, playing with it. Leonard and Vic add commentary, examples and quips. An idea doesn't so much bounce between them as it is grasped by all three and stretched slowly outward. You can sense the hours and hours of shared talk and daily living. It is an important aspect of their achievement that they have developed a way to combine four very distinct, creative and stubborn minds to discover and expand ideas satisfying to them all. As a growing process it was not always smooth. Their description of their first months together is "Survival of the fittest." The fittest fantasies survived. Sometimes the weapons were egos, sometimes longevity: who could talk the longest?

"It was like the Supreme Court," Vic says, "or the Senate."

They remember their early battles with relish. Somehow a group intuition developed. Now they are aware of the fundamental ideas shared by them all, and of the personal tastes and idiosyncrasies to avoid.

"The battles are much more sophisticated now," Terry says, laughing. "And treacherous!" They all agree that the idea that wins group approval is one that goes beyond itself. They are attracted to visions of simplicity, irony and magic.

The Squad met almost two years ago in or around the UCLA Art Department, where Terry taught lithography and the others were students. The first common goal they found they all shared was to find an alternative to the La Cienega Art Gallery scene on a local level, and to the whole competitive, exclusive, art cocktail society in general.

"Everyone is hustling money for his own private thing," Leonard explains. "The so-called 'art historian' dictates what is important and what is not, causing a fierce competition to be 'original.' There is a tyranny that dominates the artist, and art ceases to have anything to do with your own community, yourself even."

From the first the four played with the idea of large spaces, thinking in terms of billboards. They were interested in public art, out of the confines of frames and galleries. They were interested in communication, accessibility, cooperation, using many billboard techniques (i.e. high color-density paint, the use of measured-off sections, and painting from photographs).

While they were looking for billboard space, they painted their first mural on the wall of Vic's studio on Brooks and Pacific in the heart of the Venice beachfront neighborhood. They used a theme that appears in all of their works—reflection, carbon copy, mirage, showing a familiar, but altered scene from the streets, In this case it was the scene which the wall faced, only car-less and people-less—Brooks Avenue with the Laundromat sign on the brick building and the deep blue line of the sea in the distance.

Hearing of the Fine Arts Squad through this work, Michael Hewitt, then the manager of the new night club, The Climax, commissioned them to paint his architectural wonder, asking them to begin with something on the fantasy level for the ceiling of the antichamber inside the main door. Faced with this great showplace, the Squad experienced their first personal battle.

"We all had incredible visions at the same time," Leonard recalls. "I felt a lot of anxiety that first night. I know Jim did, too."

Vic continues the story. "We all did a panel; different, unrelated to the others. After that we realized we had to get together. It's a kind of crazy salon in there," he laughs.

It's true that in looking at the Climax, one can almost trace the intellectual and artistic growth of four minds merging and emerging. Appropriately, the subject matter is the story of a Beverly Hills Siddhartha. A youth, filled with video fantasies of lust and adventure, embarks on a journey that leads him around San Vicente and finally into two scenes of overwhelming peace. Our Siddhartha becomes a painter (the exact image of Leonard), working on a canvas to capture the image of a girl who sits on a beach. And lastly, he sits meditating in the midst of a mountain stream. The growth of the youth from immature chaos to supreme tranquility is parelleled [sic] by the development of the graphic quality of the Squad.

The spiritual element of their paintings comes from many sources. Vic practices meditation, Leonard reads the Bhagavad Gita, Jim rides a motorcycle and Terry reads Zap Comic Books.

It was while they were painting the Climax that Jerry Rosin, a Los Angeles attorney whom the Squad fondly calls "a man of the Future; a great experimentalist," found them, grew interested in their work, and partially financed Leonard's film and their most recent painting.

Located back in Venice, on 18th St. and Speedway Alley, the painting covers a 20' by 70' wall of a black studio right on Ocean Front Walk. It looks more real than life; an echo of a view just a few blocks away. Cyclists, passing motorists and Venice residents on a stroll are constantly gathered in front of it to gaze at length and enjoy the odd, compelling force it has. The painting causes a chill, tickles the marrow of the bones with a gentle quetion [sic] mark, because the scene, while almost photographically exact, depicts an altered Venice. Nestled gently on the palm trees and on the rooftops, melting on the walkway, is a foot or so of snow. An angry, dark sky promises more to come, and the sun rises in the Northwest. What does it mean? Even Venice regulars, accustomed to the mixture of the lyrical and the,bizarre, gape in wonder. Two painted figures, familiar Venice characters, hover over a fire burning in a garbage pail reading a crumpled newspaper. Breath steams the air around their faces, as it does around the three other figures who walk briskly in the snow, covering their territory as usual. It's reassuring, somehow, to see them.

But what is the headline on the newspaper? "GUERRILLA LEADER RUBEN, NIXON NEGOTIATE." The ominous aspect of the painting returns, leaving one with a vague impression of endurance, or continuation in the face of holocaust or ecological disaster.

In response to the thousands of questions regarding the snow, the members of the Squad offer little explanation.

"We wanted it to snow in Venice, so we made it snow," Vic claims simply. But in spite of their reluctance to discuss the "message," the Squad can be seen as political, in the broadest sense of the word. ("PoIitical?" Vic asks. "Sure. I'd like to be Baron of Arizona. Terry misspelled Jerry Rubin's name on the headline. That's how political we are.")

"We aren't radicalized politically because we all come from the universal middle class, source of the worId's greatest fantasies," Terry says. "But I think the concept of ecology is changing the meaning of 'political.' Living in this era, no artist could say he doesn't feel a pressure to be political, unless he's a total recluse living in isolation. We are standing on the outside looking in. We don't feel political. We just feel, period. What we feel we want to make concrete for other people. That's what the paintings are ... concrete manifestations. We see in these paintings a way of bringing people together, not just in looking at something, but in being able to work on the environment. In addition to being a specific image coming from a specific imagination, each painting is a kind of demonstration of faith and cooperation, I mean, what we are as a functioning unit is at least as important as the actual things we produce."

Terry continues while the others listen quietly. "Everyone can find this message in us, whether or not he likes the image. And even the image must be dealt with. It's not hidden in a gallery, it's on a wall. People are used to walking down a street and hardly noticing a wall. In a sense we've combined two worlds that weren't combined before in a full-force way. There's been advertising and big outdoor pictures, but we're the first ones to take them as seriously as possible, and put our own imaginations up, saying 'screw the consequences,' whether or not the wall might be torn down or blocked from view."

The existential artist! Unconcerned about the fate of his work, placing value only on the creating of it, willing to see it destroyed? Actually, late this summer there was a strong possibility that the Climax building was to be leased to a Southern-based Baptist Church which wanted to set up a branch in Babylon West. The representative liked the building, but not the painting, and was considering whitewashing it. Stoicism disappeared, and Vic seriously considered guerrilla bombings, like some Ayn Rand character.

"It's like death," he explains. "You know it's going to happen, but when you are actually faced with it, you shit."

Always the philosopher, Terry adds, "The important point is that the painting registered. He was concerned about whether the images were too worldly, which means that they meant something to him. If he saw them as sinful, he must have liked them."

Luckily, the Climax re-opened under new management, and the monumental meditator continues serenely to awe passing traffic-tom motorists.

A most extraordinary aspect of their maturity as artists is the Fine Arts Squad's disciplined demand for perfection; using an attention to detail. This quality is felt full-force in the "Snow" painting. The sky is a wet, heavy presence in the painting; the clouds appear to break and gather before your eyes. A light glows weakly from the Matchbox Bar, giving the impression that if you just squint your eyes, you could make out figures within. The window on the market looks perfectly capable of reflecting anyone who approaches the painting. The magical perfection extends even to the perspective, which, if compared to the sight of Ocean Front Walk disappearing south, exactly parallels in illusion and measurement. If one is crazy enough to [end, missing pages]


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