Kent Twitchell: The Man Who Paints Giants
Written by Betty Ann Brown
Los Angeles master artist Kent Twitchell creates beautifully rendered portraits of cultural heroes: visual artists, musicians, actors, athletes, and politicians. He does so on an unprecedented scale, so that his subjects’ considerable accomplishments are matched by their colossal size. His murals are striking in their intense realism. They also have a humble but spiritual presence. Twitchell transforms his subjects into awe-inspiring titans. But in spite of their impressive scale, Twitchell’s figures have an unpretentious presence. The artist clearly respects and admires his subjects, and his monumental portraits have a profound and quietly dramatic impact.
Twitchell’s mural projects have been numerous and diverse. Here are only a few examples. In 1972, the year he graduated from Cal State LA, Twitchell began work on the Bride and Groom mural on the side of the Victor Clothing Company in downtown LA. He started a mural of LA artist Ed Ruscha in 1978. (It was painted over in 2006, and repainted–after a difficult legal challenge–in 2017.) In 2009, Twitchell painted immense faces of US presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan on the Berlin Wall, for the 20-year anniversary of its fall. He has also worked on images of both actor Steve McQueen and pop star Michael Jackson. (Due to the scandal surrounding the singer, the Jackson mural was never completed.) Twitchell is currently working on a mural of artist Martha Alf as well as one of highly awarded actor and activist Edward James Olmos (who is, like Twitchell, an alumnus of Cal State LA.)
Art historians like to trace the development of muralism in Mexico and the United States by identifying roots in Renaissance murals. For example, Diego Rivera’s History of Mexico murals in the Mexican National Palace (1929-1935) is said to derive, ultimately, from Leonardo’s Last Supper, Raphael’s Vatican Stanzi and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as well as the other murals Rivera saw on his extended study trip to Europe in 1907-1921. What this lineage omits is the fact that all of these murals, including Rivera’s, were painted inside buildings. As such, viewers were limited to those who had access to the religious or government domains that enclosed them. Neither Rivera nor his Renaissance forebears painted outside for the general public to see as they walked by.
Today’s street art, however obliquely derived from the history of muralism, is a new and more democratic phenomenon. Today’s murals are dependent on automobile-based mobility: We see them as we drive by.
It is precisely the fact that street art murals are made to be glimpsed at 30- to 60-miles per hour, that makes Kent Twitchell’s giants so successful. We see them as we speed by the skyscrapers they adorn. As we round the curve of the ramp that connects the 10 and the 110, we are confronted by several outsized members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. We race beside the runners of the LA Marathon Mural on the southbound side of the 5 Freeway. And we see immense faces of artists Lita Albuquerque and Jim Morphesis as we drive beneath an overpass. (The Albuquerque-Morphesis mural, Seventh Street Altarpiece, shows the two artists framing their faces with open palms as if engaged in silent, perhaps prayerful, conversation.)
Twitchell’s recent exhibition at Cal State LA’s Ronald H. Silverman Fine Art Gallery was deftly curated by Cal State undergrad Abraham Suskind and facilitated by Gallery Director Mika Cho. Suskind intended for the show to reveal Twitchell’s working process, so he included numerous preparatory drawings, painted studies, photographs of several of the murals in situ, and several other photographs of the artist at work. Suskind chose works related to iconic murals as well as a few that never left the artist’s studio. One cluster of images portrayed Charles White, Twitchell’s mentor at Otis Art Institute. (Note: A retrospective of White’s work opened at LACMA in February 2019.) Another grouping related to the three-story tall image of Jesus, wrapped in an elegant red robe and holding out a bible as an offering. The red fabric folds around his elongated body like the sculpted flutes of an ancient column. Serene and beautiful, Twitchell’s gigantic Jesus is–like so many of the artist’s works–a mammoth and generous portrayal.