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Newsweek Magazine, September 7, 1970, pp.86–87


Up Against the Walls

Deep in the heart of Los Angeles, on La Cienega Boulevard's restaurant row, squats the Climax Club. Once a private drinking club, the building now is vacant, but it has become an offbeat tourist attraction in the last year, especially for flower children, who sit in the Climax parking lot and absorb its vibes. They don't come to groove on the club's bizarre architecture, which resembles two oil storage tanks with a pagoda in between. What makes them thumb in from the freeways is the polyptych painting on the Climax's curving walls.

Executed in a hyperrealistic billboard style, the mural depicts the progress of a youth called Beverly Hills Siddhartha, from the first awakening of his consciousness in college to his final rejection of materialism on the beach. It took a year, 200 gallons of sign-painter's enamel and $12,000 to produce, and now, glimmering magically in the smoglight, it is the masterpiece of a uniquely Californian group of street artists known as the Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad.

Rock: Young, tightly knit, longhaired and looking something like a rock group, the Squad ride motorcycles and paint on walls. Artists Jim Frazin, Terry Schoonhoven, Leonard Koren and Vic Henderson, the oldest of the four at 30, found each other less than two years ago in the Bohemian L.A. suburb of Venice. They were mutually repelled by the idea of making art for the Establishment system of private dealers and collectors and turned instead to painting the wall outside their own studio.

'We were interested," says Schoonhoven, 25, "in bringing anything art can stand for to the people. Our art is out in the open and unprotected. It's outside of the galleries and available to anyone." Indeed, as the Climax mural grew, it became a part of the life of the street.

"Every day that we paint," Schoonhoven says, "we spend with people. They are constantly coming up and asking us what we're doing. The painting comes alive in the daytime, lives a daily life and then goes to sleep at night." That statement more or less describes the life of the Squad as well, for, while their "friendly, open" street work has brought their art together with ordinary people, it has also, and perhaps more importantly, brought the members of the Squad together into a close, collective relationship. "Our brains are intuitively together," says Frazin, 23, who is now in traction, recovering from a full-power motorcycle slide into a brick wall.

Crew: In Venice, they learned to work together. Then, when the manager of the Climax Club offered them his 9,000 square feet of wall (plus materials and eventually even some money for themselves), the Squad put its collective spirit into high gear. They worked from dawn to dark every day for the first month, then tapered off to a five-day week for the remainder of a year. During that time their technique evolved from routine psychedelic phantasmagoria to a cooler, highly skilled superrealism. After choosing a basic snapshot to reproduce, they block out the photo by hand, many times enlarged, on the wall. Each man paints his own section, filling in the squares from top to bottom like a professional billboard crew.

Even before the Climax project was done, it was riveting the attention of passers-by and drawing praise from the local art world. Larry Bell, a Los Angeles artist with an international reputation, thinks their work has a hypnotic magic similar to that of the great French surrealist Magritte. "That place on La Cienega is reaIly an awful building" says Bell. "What they managed to do is to make it disappear. In certain light conditions, their sky blends with the real sky and the building just goes poof." And Bill Wilson, an art critic for The Los Angeles Times, says: "I think they've tapped into many of the most advanced ideas in art. One of the more important is that the individual artist, functioning by himself, is no longer the key figure he was in the Renaissance."

Success has not spoiled the Fine Arts Squad. Oriented specifically against sales and profit, they are currently immersed in a riot of new projects including a comic book, a film festival, a community center in the country for their work and "huerrilla" gardens to grow organic food. Their most original new idea is what they caIl hit-and-run art-prefabricated billboard-style sheets which the night-riding squad could slap up on likely sites as a quick response to political events such as Kent State. But this has to wait until Frazin can walk again.

Last week Schoonhoven stood by their latest painting, a replica of the Venice oceanfront-covered with snow. A few winos wandered by and a hip couple on bicycles stopped to look at the wall. Schoonhoven, the sea breeze blowing shoulder-length blond hair, surveyed the scene, satisfied: "Painting is dead," he said smiling. "Long live painting."


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