At the point at which Modernism and the avant-garde were declared dead – stemming from the increasing commoditization of art and the idea that originality was impossible in the technological age of mass circulation and availability of information and images – Suzi Gablik defined art in her 1985 book, Has Modernism Failed?, as a ritual, which artists could now approach in one of two ways:

  1. Going through the motions of the ritual in order to examine the codes and beliefs upon which art and society are founded, or,
  2. Engage with the ritual because it is meaningful, transformative, and has the power to heal art and society.

The former approach is that of Deconstructivism in art – a dismantling and examination of the codes and beliefs of Modernism, and an ironic reflection of the rampant capitalism and consumerism in Western society of the age. This was accomplished via a complete objectification of the art via seriality, repetition, and a focus on found materials and cultural iconography. Artists like Warhol (who appropriated pop culture imagery and employed repetition and a machine-like production process) and McCollum (with his seriality, overt objectification of art as commodity and mass-production) are known for Deconstructivist art.

On the other hand, the latter approach deals with Reconstructivism – a re-enchantment with art via the belief that it has the power to heal and transform artists and viewers, and imbuing art with a moral authority to achieve such transformation. This art was highly individual, sometimes fleeting, not neatly packaged or saleable – performance art for example, or public art that democratized art and “belonged” to everyone and no one. Reconstructive artists sought to raise public consciousness, promote a reconnection with the earth, nature, animals, and other human beings, and to point the way for society by encouraging social discourse, particularly for Civil Rights, Vietnam War Protests, Feminism and LGBTQ Liberation.

Both Deconstructive and Reconstructive artists recognized the challenges posed by the increased commoditization of art, and the hypocrisy in and failure of (as Koons referred to it) Modernism and Modern Art’s responsibility to communicate (Caicco 2019), but their responses to the challenge were vastly different. It appears to me that Deconstructive artists focused on pointing out the problems, failures and inconsistencies with art and society, perhaps as a means to draw attention and raise awareness to instigate change, whereas the Reconstructive artists focused on actually initiating and leading change towards a better society with their work. I personally identify with the latter – not only for the tendency to actively lead and instigate change, but for the tenets of having closer connection with the earth, animals and other human beings, and for using what’s at my disposal to attempt to make my world a better place. The piece of Reconstructivist art that resonated most with me in this unit is Judy Baca’s The Great Wall of Los Angeles.

 

Judy Baca, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, 1984, Tujunga Flood Control Channel,
Los Angeles, California.

Click here for Google Street View of the Great Wall of Los Angeles, and here for a short independent documentary video of the mural’s construction during the first summer of the project.

In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineering contacted Mexican-American artist and muralist Judith F. Baca about a beautification project for the Tujunga Flood Control Channel in the San Fernando Valley, in Los Angeles, California. Baca worked with a team of ten artist supervisors, five historians and over 400 at-risk youth muralists to research, plan, design, prepare and paint a mural for the project over summers in the following twelve years. The mural, which was already the longest mural in the world after the first summer installment, now stretches over half a mile and stands nearly fourteen feet high. The subject of the mural is the history of California from prehistoric times through the 1950s (although additional decades are in the research and design phases), through the lens of the ethnic peoples of California.

The process of constructing such a work was arduous – Baca spent a year per depicted decade researching and consulting with historians, who identified and selected the various historically significant events to be included in the work. She then oversaw the artist supervisors who worked with groups of at-risk youth to design the artwork for each section of the mural. Once final designs were approved, teams of muralists descended into the flood control channel to sandblast, waterblast, and seal the concrete in order to prepare for several layers of white paint, grid lines, transferred designs, and finally the mural work itself. Once the new section of mural was completed, it was sealed in order to protect the fresh paint from the elements.

As a student, Baca “studied the great Mexican muralists (Siquieros, Rivera, Orozco and others)” (Feinberg 2011, 377) and that influence shows up in this work – particularly Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park (1947-48), with its crowded composition, depiction of Mexican historical figures and ethnic symbolism. The work, particularly the first 1000 feet painting during the first summer, is made up of pictorials of ethnic history, each one conceived, designed, and painted by a different group of muralists. As such, though the scenes blend together in a running timeline, there is a certain disjointedness between scenes as the styles differ slightly. Baca oversaw the project, however, and there are certain unifying characteristics that pull the work together at a high level – the use of definitive lines throughout the design, the slightly-exaggerated figuration of the depicted scenes and the tri-color method of shading endemic to the Chicano art movement (which involved highlighting/shadowing with a single lighter/darker shade of the primary shade).

The mural has the shallow depth, for the most part, of cubism – even great distances are depicted on very close planes, distorting the perspective slightly. There is a certain rhythm to the work – each scene is depicted on a single panel of the concrete wall, so the scenes appear in a regular and orderly manner. However, because each scene is developed and painted by a different group, there is not a contiguous, unifying background – while this does cause breaks in continuity, it serves to highlight each scene individually, allowing each to stand on its own for examination, instead of running or blurring into one another.

Like Rivera and Orozco, who painted murals as a way to democratize art and engage a wider audience than the museum-going class, Baca realized the value of art in community engagement and opening social discourse, saying, “I have always known the value of art as a tool for transformation both personal and political” (Baca, Artist Statement 2019). Of The Great Wall of Los Angeles, Baca stated, “I envisioned a long narrative of another history of California; one which included ethnic peoples, women and minorities who were so invisible in conventional text book accounts” (Baca, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, 2019). Her art, like that of the Mexican masters and contemporaries of the Reconstructionist art of her period, served a moral, shamanic purpose – to awaken community consciousness to the reality of the ethnic peoples of California, giving a voice to those who had all-too-frequently been silenced in the retelling of American history, and giving the members of the surrounding community a literal place in history, healing (or attempting to heal) a break between the Anglo and ethnic histories, communities and realities in Southern California.

Like Baca, I personally believe in using whatever you have at your disposal to make a positive impact on the people and the world around you. In her case, she used her artistic talent and notoriety to lift others along with her – using art to tell a powerful story, the process of which impacted a community economically (providing 400+ jobs in the community), culturally (by bringing groups from various backgrounds to bridge racial, economic and ethnic divides and work together on the project) and in terms of future growth (by providing alternative summer activities – including employment, education, affirmation, arts training and purpose – to at-risk teens who might have otherwise been prone to gang membership, drug use, sex trafficking, etc.).

Sources:

Baca, Judy. “Artist Statement.” Judy Baca Artist Website, accessed July 8, 2019. http://www.judybaca.com/artist/page/artist-statement/

Baca, Judy. “The Great Wall Explained.” Judy Baca Artist Website, accessed July 8, 2019. http://www.judybaca.com/artist/portfolio/the-great-wall/

Caicco, Gregory. “Unit 4: Pop and Fluxus.” Course Content, Contemporary Art from Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA, July 7, 2019.

Doss, Erika. “Raising Community Consciousness with Public Art: Contrasting Projects by Judy Baca and Andrew Leicester.” American Art 6, no. 1 (1992): 63-81. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/3109047.

Fineberg, Jonathan David. 2011. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Gablik, Suzi. 2004. Has Modernism Failed?. 2nd ed. New York, N.Y: Thames and Hudson.

National Parks Service. “Great Wall of Los Angeles (Mural).” NPS Website, accessed July 7, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/places/great-wall-of-los-angeles.htm.

SPARC. “The Great Wall of Los Angeles.” SPARC in LA website, accessed July 7, 2019. http://sparcinla.org/programs/the-great-wall-mural-los-angeles/