“Kent is a larger than life artist, an ace painter, who thinks big, and his paintings are big.” – Ed Ruscha
In a metropolis famous for signs and street art that we view as moving images through car windows, Kent Twitchell’s monumental portraits create a still space that holds our attention for deeper reflection on the transporting values of museum quality art amid the incessant visual noise of L.A car culture.
Just as Ruscha broke new ground by transporting popular signs from L.A. car culture into museums, Twitchell broke new ground by transporting classical portraiture techniques from museum culture into car culture. This new Ruscha portrait, hovering 40 feet over the roof tops on Traction Ave, on the side wall of the historic American Hotel in the heart of the DTLA art district, is an iconic sign of L.A’s art-historical progress.
The Hollywood sign that used to symbolize provincial L.A. is a commercial real estate sign (originally, “Hollywood Land”), with little aesthetic interest except for its geographic location as a focal point from many directions. Today, Chris Burden’s mesmerizing “Urban Lights” at LACMA is the iconic symbol of sophisticated L.A art culture. However, Twitchell’s important Ruscha portrait is destined to become a symbol of L.A’s new incarnation into a 21st century art mecca, because he memorializes Ruscha – the quintessential L. A artist – as a towering presence in the historic arts district.
Twitchell insists that, “Some people are just too big to fit into a canvas and hang in a gallery.” Indeed, Ruscha belongs on the world map, and Twitchell’s portrait mirrors his transporting aesthetic because we view this monument to his artist-hero from our car window.
Twitchell’s enormous portraits grew out of his childhood experience of drive-in movie theaters in the 1940s and 50s that transported his imagination “in the days when big guys did the right thing and not the expedient thing.” He recreates this uplifting experience of looking up at cinematic heroes by using the city as a canvas for monumentalizing L.A. creatives who embody these heroic ideals.
Twitchell’s acclaimed portraits have raised the bar in L.A. mural culture since the 1970s because he uses classical painting techniques that are rarely seen beyond museum walls. But outside the protection of a museum, these public artworks were vulnerable to vandalism, and sadly, many of his giant portraits were destroyed. But today Twitchell is armed with new conservation materials: B-72 (a thermoplastic resin) he uses for multiple coats as a final varnish over a gel medium under polytab to glue it to the wall. This material provides a sacrificial coating that protects artwork from vandalism and preserves it for years to come. Twitchell’s new 30-foot portrait of Ed Ruscha’s torso was painted in his studio (on polytab), unlike his earlier portraits painted directly on the wall using a boom.
Twitchell was an artist in the Air Force, inspired by the different perspectives he saw of London: looking down from the air and then up from the street at beautiful historic buildings reaching toward the sky. As an American in London he was enthralled by history and longed for the majesty of old world urbanism. Twitchell also recalls being part of the hippie, flower-child generation, one who wanted to beautify everything from cars to clothing with painted flowers. This desire to both historicize and beautify L.A. is the modus operandi for his monumental portraits.
Twitchell’s traditional painting techniques recall classical European frescos because he uses repoussoir ( French “to push back” ) in order to create depth of field in a dynamic space. Bernard Berenson argued that, “Art comes into existence only when we get a sense of space not as a void, as something negative, but on the contrary, as something very positive and definite, able to confirm our consciousness of being, to heighten our sense of vitality.”
Just as Ruscha is famed for energizing negative space, Twitchell is also a master space-composer because he uses repoussoir to oscillate our attention between Ruscha’s elegant hands in the foreground and his piercing blue eyes in the background, creating spatial dynamics that transport our consciousness. He also dignifies Ruscha’s gray fox hairline above the roof, while his maroon shirt matches the hotel awnings.
Unlike the flat frontal focus of most murals or Hollywood movie billboards, which are painted in solid colors without the variation that creates dimension, Twitchell makes use of a complex palette of hundreds of nuanced constituent values, meticulously mixing them by hand, to create subtle variations of tones and hues. This makes his portraits hyper-realistic, because in real life faces, leaves, and flowers have hundreds of subtle color tones. By comparison, flat solid color is a shallow experience of artificality – something commonly used in advertising for the purpose of selling products.
Twitchell is also influenced by the SoCal Light and Space movement and minimalism. He was inspired by Lita Albuquerque’s ground breaking outdoor V-shape artwork Washington Monument, which led him to focus on the natural light of the site conditions and the way it creates different lines of shadows over his portraits during the course of a day.
Twitchell’s purpose is the opposite of graffiti vandals who destroy beauty in turf wars by desecrating artworks and historic landmarks. Tragically, most of Twitchell’s early monumental portrait landmarks were destroyed by vandalism, careless property owners, and corporate entities. Although some of Twitchell’s monumental portraits were transported, his trials and tribulations as an active member of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles led to a two-year legal battle over his 1987 Ed Ruscha Monument, which was destroyed in 2006 when it was white-washed by the owner, without the artist’s consent.
Twitchell won $1.1 million (more than half of which went for legal fees), in the protracted lawsuit involving 12 entities implicated in the whitewashing. The artist pursued it because he believes it is a “lack of politeness and respect to destroy an artist’s work.” He cites Kenneth Clark’s thesis in Civilisation as one that ‘”differentiates people who create from those who destroy.” Twitchell’s magnanimous portraits – unlike graffiti vandalism – are a gift to L.A., because they allow the public to muse on the enticing beauty of classical art seen outside museum walls, from car windows.