By Scott Haskins
A mural monument, memorialized by the city governments of Los Angeles and Hollywood for the successful research and victory in the fight against AIDS was recently recovered from vandal’s graffiti and Caltrans gray paint, but not without an interesting ethical question raised about the art conservation and restoration measures of this public contemporary art: is the repainting of a contemporary mural in the name of restoration ever acceptable? Here’s the story...
Blue Moon Trilogy was the public art brain child of artist-illustrator Russell Carlton in 1987 who partnered with the newly organized AIDS Project Los Angeles (now #APLAHealth) to raise money for, and awareness of, the AIDS crisis. It turns out that this fundraising event became the launch of the highly effective organization for AIDS research support, as demonstrated by this collection of contemporary news footage and interviews with the artist during the mural’s construction. Sadly, years later, the artist succumbed to this disease.
Located next to the world famous Hollywood Bowl entertainment and concert center on the wall of the 101 freeway underpass of Odin St., the painting of the 57 meter (186 foot) long mural—and its message to society—were immediately recognized for their high profile interest, and the artwork was memorialized by city officials with a bronze plaque mounted into the mural next to the artist’s signature and date. Carlton’s technique for painting the mural was to lay out the landscape-styled composition in color fields, as one might expect from an illustrator. Low quality house paint produced by Cal Western was donated for the project. It was applied very evenly onto the cement freeway overpass wall without the blending of colors.
Exposed to the high foot traffic of the area, and easily accessible, the mural was already in need of massive restoration by 1993, when work was undertaken by the artist and friends. The graffiti removal process damaged the mural, which Carlton lamented in a letter. Since no evident retouching is visible on the mural, it appears that the mural was repainted, if not in its entirety, at least in its damaged compositional areas. The artist’s partner, still living today, affirms that this was the only restoration effort for the mural in the past. The mural was hit hard between the time of restoration and 1996, and the artist lamented the serious need to remove extensive graffiti, especially in the “entire bottom 8’ section of the mural” which had been practically obliterated.
Though largely ignored since that time, the mural and its message have never been unappreciated (italic emphasis added by activist-level enthusiasm) by the surrounding historic neighborhoods which were recently able to “rally the troops” and find support for the mural’s restoration. Aligning their enthusiasm with the city’s resources, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) along with the energetic and impassioned public art expert Yami Duarte secured a contract for its restoration with renowned mural conservation expert Scott M. Haskins and his firm, Fine Art Conservation Laboratories (FACL) in Santa Barbara, CA, USA.
In the project proposal, solubility tests of graffiti paint, gray Caltrans overpaint, and the original colors of the mural were performed. Once the project was contracted, solubility tests were reconfirmed after power washing (with cold water) and removal of the thick hydrocarbon layer generated from trucks using the underpass for access to the freeway. From the solubility tests using various removal solutions and techniques, it was clearly evident that all original paint layers and colors were much more soluble than the overlying graffiti.
Removal of graffiti with techniques that preserved the original paint layers would have been extremely laborious with limited success. Inpainting follow-up would therefore also have been plentiful and laborious.
ALTERATIONS OF COLORS: FADING OF ORIGINAL PAINT LAYERS AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
Once the heaviest layers of grime and hydrocarbons were removed, it was clearly evident that extensive fading or color change had occurred on all colors exposed to the greatest amount of light. In the darkest areas of the underpass, all colors were darker and richer than in the areas exposed to more sunlight. Violet had turned to pink; orange lost its warmth, blue had turned many shades lighter as had the greens.
PREVIOUS REPAINTING OF THE MURAL
Photographs in family archives note that there was restoration done on the mural (presumably to remove graffiti) in 1994, six years after it was completed. However, as is typical of paintings with retouching, especially that done by the artists, no signs or evidence of reworking or touch-up are evident today. The only conclusion that could be made is that the compositional elements were completely repainted during that restoration rather than a local touch-up of the damage. So there are two possibilities (both of which could be true) that could account for the change in the background color; (1) that the background has faded on the right side, which is the side exposed to the most sunlight, or (2) that the original paint colors were not accurately matched during the 1994 repainting. Unfortunately, there are no indications in the city archives about the previous restoration.
The artist’s original concept for the mural was a brilliantly colorful graphic design landscape made up of color fields. These color fields would have been evenly colored and therefore the blending of colors is inappropriate for the artist’s concept and intent. This note about the artist’s intent is confirmed by preparatory drawings and through an interview by Scott M. Haskins with the artist’s partner, David Hubbard.
In addition, the Department of Cultural Affairs affirmed that the family of the artist confirmed their legal rights to the mural in 2017, and it is their desire that the appearance, colors, and composition of the mural be preserved and remain unchanged as per the original concept of the artist. Specifically, they approved the repainting of areas damaged beyond repair with the strict edict of the above named guidelines.
Given this mandate to preserve the artist’s intent of evenly applied color fields—and in light of the original paint’s alterations due to fading, due to mismatching colors that may have been done in a previous restoration, and due to the extensive damage done to the original paint by the harder and more resistant graffiti paint qualities—Scott M. Haskins decided to repaint the entire mural reproducing the original colors as closely as possible and following exactly the original composition. Yami Duarte of DCA authorized FACL to choose the colors that most closely matched the original mural and make the appropriate adjustments.
THE SCOPE OF WORK AS IT WAS FINALIZED
1. Return mural to original colors and composition and bring it back to original appearance and stable condition.
2. Also, important for future resistance when graffiti removal will be required; Improve the quality of the painting materials
used on the mural.
3. After work on the mural, apply a protective layer over the mural in order to make the process of future graffiti removal
much easier and to substantially reduce the amount of work required in the future for maintenance. The City of Los Angeles
Department of Cultural Affairs decided upon and mandated the choice of the final protective coating.
The artist’s family, partner, and the neighborhood where the mural is located were clear in their intentions to have the mural returned back the way the artist painted it (back to the artist’s original intentions). Only on that condition was it going to be historical and accurate, and only on that condition would the artist’s representatives agree to the restoration.
It was also the will of the artist’s estate and the DCA to not use the same poor quality of the original paint (low quality acrylic house paint—Cal Western acrylic paint—now out of business) for the repainting. Knowing that the original painting materials were inferior in quality, the artist’s estate and DCA approved its repainting with higher quality materials under the aforementioned guidelines and conditions.
This decision was consistent with other restoration campaigns for similar contemporary murals by living artists in the LA area also with very damaged color field areas. Some examples of murals repainted in areas of color fields by art conservators in collaboration with the original artist as part of their restoration can be reviewed at these links:
“Produce Market Murals” by Tom Suriya: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QWeoowOk9A
“Jim Morphesis” by Kent Twitchell: https://youtu.be/2bA36FgrLf4
“Biola Jesus” by Kent Twitchell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWtPDRg24Z0
At the beginning of this article, the question was asked, “Is the repainting of a contemporary mural in the name of restoration ever acceptable?” Given the qualifying guidelines outlined in this article (which have been considerations in a number of similar projects) the answer has to be “yes,” also considering the artist’s intent and given the laws that govern so many cities that support the artist’s rights.
FINAL PROTECTIVE ANTI-GRAFFITI LAYER
The City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs, required the application of the following protective final coating as a barrier against graffiti: Aliphatic polyurethane 2 part catalyzed coating, # gcp-1000a_ocb; manufacturer Genesis Coatings, 2780 La Mirada Drive, #D Vista, CA, 92081, (800) 533-4273 The company’s directions for its use can be found here: http://www.fineartconservationlab.com/gcp-1000a_ocb/ Do you have any experience with a similar product? As far as I know, it is untested and un-examined by the conservation community. If you have any performance or aging information, please contact:
Scott M. Haskins
(805) 570-4140 mobile
MURAL RESTORATION REMAINS INCOMPLETE
While the restoration of the top two thirds of the mural has been a great success, the bottom third still remains covered by gray Caltrans overpaint which hides even more sever graffiti and damage. Fundraising is underway to gather the money needed to complete restoration of the entire mural.
Scott M. Haskins is an internationally renowned art conservator whose firm, FACL, provides professional services throughout the USA for paintings and murals. FACL also has a specialized division for disaster response services for art related items. He has been a member of IIC, AIC Professional Associate, and WAAC since 1976.