The Isle of California

The Mural “Isle of California” (1972) When It Was Newly Painted

Near the West Los Angeles Post Office is the Village Recording Studio at 1616 Butler Avenue. On its back wall is a mural entitled “Isle of California” showing what remains when most of California has fallen into the ocean. It was painted in 1972 by the L.A. Fine Arts Squad consisting of Victor Henderson, Terry Schoonhoven, and Jim Frazin.

Of course, Southern California will not just fall into the ocean after “the Big One.” What is west of the San Andreas Fault will be displaced northwards, separating itself horizontally from the area east of the fault.

I saw today a fascinating quote from J. B. Priestley in Carey McWilliams’s Southern California Country: An Island on the Land:

There is something disturbing about this corner of America, a sinister suggestion of transience. There is a quality, hostile to men in the very earth and air here. As if we were not meant to make our homes in this oddly enervating sunshine…. California will be a silent desert again. It is all as impermanent and brittle as a roll of film.

Oddly, that’s what I felt shortly after I moved here. The feeling was reinforced by the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971 and the Northridge Earthquake of 1994.

The Same Mural Today: Badly Faded With Earthquake Reinforcing Bolts

Well, Southern California is still here. And I’m still here. The place still feels a bit unreal to me, but I have fallen in love with it. So if the whole place should happen to fall in the ocean after all, I’m a goner.

The Muralist

Quetzalcoatl Mural at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library

During the four years I was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I spent many hours studying in the reserve room of Baker Library where, between 1932 and 1934, José Clemente Orozco painted a striking series of murals named “The Epic of American Civilization.” One of the images (above) was of the god Quetzalcoatl (or Plumed Serpent) crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatán. It was largely due to Quetzalcoatl’s yellow beard in Aztec iconography that misled Moctezuma to believe that Hernán Cortés was Quetzalcoatl returned to the Aztecs. We all know how that turned out….

Orozco also did other murals at a dining hall at Dartmouth, but they were removed because they were thought to be Communist, and the Patricians in control at Dartmouth were aghast that the Mexican visitor would abuse their hospitality. (A similar thing happened in Los Angelist, where Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a mural called “América Tropical” that was painted over for similar reasons.)

I love Orozco’s work. At one point, I even journeyed to Guadalajara to see more of his work, such as the image of Miguel Hidalgo below:

Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco featuring Miguel Hidalgo (leader of the Mexican War of Independence), Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace), in the historic Center of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Censorship of a great work of art because one does not believe in the political philosophy espoused by the artist is, to my mind, barbaric. Only in the United States is there a simultaneous attraction/repulsion response to Orozco’s emphatic mural style. Any attempt to paint over his work in Mexico would cause a bloody riot. But then, Mexico does not swing as far to the right as our country does.