Some of Kent Twitchell’s murals are best known because they no longer exist.
His “The Old Lady of the Freeway” greeted travelers along the Hollywood Freeway from 1974 until it was painted out by a billboard company in 1986.
More recently, “Ed Ruscha Monument,” a six-story portrait of artist Ruscha on the side of a government-owned building in downtown L.A., was painted over, in June 2006.
True, you can still see Twitchell’s influence on the cityscape on the 110 Freeway past 8th Street, where his 1991 work “Harbor Freeway Overture,” portraits of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra musicians, looms on the parking structure at Citicorp Plaza.
But the vulnerability of Twitchell’s medium is one reason you’ll find the 66-year-old, self-described “outdoor painter” hard at work indoors.
It also explains the title of his new exhibition: “Thriller: The King of Pop Meets the King of Cool: Exploring the Lost Works of Kent Twitchell,” which has its opening reception this evening and continues through April 27 by appointment only at the new LOOK Gallery in downtown’s L.A. Mart Design Center.
The exhibition will include sketches, photos and drawings for “lost” murals, as well as one that was completed but never installed or shown to the public: A 100-foot-tall, 60-foot-wide portrait of Michael Jackson, created in the early 1990s for the side of the former Barker Bros. building in Hollywood, now the El Capitan Theatre.
“It’s the most exquisite color I’ve ever done,” the artist said in a recent conversation at his downtown studio, as he stepped around panels of the mural -- Jackson’s dark eyes and chiseled nose beneath a wide hat brim -- on the floor.
Pop king Jackson will be joined by “cool” king Steve McQueen, with a full-scale re-creation of Twitchell’s first public work, a portrait of his favorite actor originally painted on a house in Hollywood.
The Jackson project was launched under the auspices of the Hollywood Arts Council. Council President Nyla Arslanian said that the council was interested in a Kent Twitchell mural first; Jackson was selected later as the subject. Arslanian said that payment was to be arranged between Jackson and Twitchell.
Twitchell said preparatory work had already been done on the building when the project was put on hold in 1993. “I was never told why,” the artist says. “It was three years of my life, and no one ever saw it.”
That was the year that Jackson was investigated for allegations that he had molested a 13-year-old boy. Twitchell refused to speculate on the role the investigation and accompanying publicity may have played in scuttling the project, and Jackson did not respond to a request for comment. Twitchell did say it became difficult to reach Jackson because attorneys formed a protective circle around the pop star.
Arslanian said that Jackson’s legal problems had nothing to do with the project’s cancellation. She attributed it to concerns about the safety of the required adhesive materials on a historic structure.
Whatever the cause of the project’s abrupt shutdown, Twitchell believes there is a new interest in the pop star, who was never charged after the 1993 allegations and was acquitted of a different set of child molestation charges in 2005. He cites Jackson’s quickly sold-out series of concerts in London, which begin in July, as evidence that the he is experiencing a career renaissance.
“He’s surfacing out of that now, getting some good notice,” Twitchell said. “We’ve all had our problems, we’ve all done things wrong or been accused of things we didn’t do. It’s not for me to judge.”
The Jackson mural is too big to display in full at the LOOK Gallery. Instead, the artist plans to mount part of it on a 20-foot wall, then roll out an additional 20 to 30 feet of it on the floor. The 150 sheets that make up the mural are painted on a synthetic, nonwoven material.
For the mural, Twitchell shot more than 100 photos of Jackson dressed in the pastel suit from the video for “Smooth Criminal,” a song from his 1987 album “Bad.”
“Originally when I talked to him, he wanted black leather, but I said I really thought the ‘Smooth Criminal’ outfit would be better because it really reminds you of Hollywood in the ‘30s, with the Fred Astaires and the Cary Grants, and he just loved that,” Twitchell said.
Twitchell said he worked on the preliminary concepts at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch near Santa Barbara, then brought Jackson to a soundstage in Hollywood for more photos.
“I wanted him to swing out so his coattails would be flying, I just wanted to get that one perfect shot -- I could always bring in a head from there, or a hand from there,” said Twitchell, whose work allows the luxury of reassembling body parts from multiple photos.
“Twitch,” as Jackson called him, made “five or six” visits to Neverland, where the two played with Jackson’s animals and discussed art and music. Jackson made him promise to make the mural “the best thing you’ve ever done.”
In the case of “Ed Ruscha Monument,” Twitchell settled his lawsuit against the U.S. government and 11 other defendants in 2008, for $1.1 million, believed to be the largest amount ever awarded under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act or the California Art Preservation Act. Both laws prohibit desecration, alteration or destruction of certain works of public art without giving the artist 90 days to allow for the option of removing it.
“I would have been a monster to let it go; the precedent that it would have set for public art would have been terrible -- we had to fight it,” Twitchell said. He has until June to decide whether to remove the mural or try to restore it in its current location.
Negotiations have begun to re-create “Ed Ruscha” on a side of the L.A. Mart. He also has plans to breathe new life into his Freeway Lady mural.
Since 2004, plans have been in the works to re-create the mural on the side of the Valley Institute of Visual Art in Sherman Oaks, but the gallery’s board president, Susan Kuss, said fears of vandalism led gallery officials to suggest re-creating it on an interior wall.
Twitchell is amenable to the idea -- but also plans to make an outdoor statement by painting the Freeway Lady’s afghan flowing out through high windows in the building.
“And inside, we’ll put the Freeway Lady in such a way that if we become more, I hate the word, more civilized, she can always be taken down and put up outdoors.”