Is it the longest mural in the world? That’s what they say. The Great Wall of Los Angeles stretches a half-mile along an unlikely canvas: a concrete wall of the Tujunga Wash drainage channel in the San Fernando Valley.
And just in case the Great Wall is not the longest, or a rival mural comes along to challenge its supremacy, there are plans to double its size.
It recounts Los Angeles history from the 1950s back to prehistoric times. After visiting on Labor Day weekend while housesitting for a friend in North Hollywood, I made brief mention here of the mural. “If I can find an excuse to write about it sometime,” I added, “I will.”
My excuse is that the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach has a wide-ranging exhibit devoted to Judy Baca, whose project the Great Wall was, and is. Recently I drove down to Long Beach to see the show.
Baca, 75, has been making art around the city for more than 50 years, with such high-profile projects as an Olympics mural on the 110 Freeway and an arch, plaza and Metrolink train platform in Baldwin Park.
Her show in Long Beach — “Judy Baca: Memorias de Nuestra Tierra, A Retrospective” — has 110 paintings, sketches, sculptures and more.
One installation from the 1990s is replica of a paleta cart, done as a comment on the Proposition 187 era. The lid is open. I walked up, curious. Face up is a grinning portrait of then-Gov. Pete Wilson in Border Patrol garb. Is it polite to laugh out loud in an art museum?
What I was most interested in was the portion of the exhibit devoted to the Great Wall. It’s an immersive experience in which video of the mural scrolls around the room on three walls, like a river flowing past. It’s wonderful.
I don’t know what those immersive Van Gogh shows are like — I think you get to lie on your back and watch “Starry Night” undulate across a ceiling — but being surrounded by the Great Wall is certainly more local, and probably more edifying.
It’s as up-close a view of the mural as we’re likely to get. Because of the Great Wall’s location in the Tujunga Wash, you view it through chain-link fence from the greenbelt on the opposite side.
It’s in Valley Glen, which is between Van Nuys and North Hollywood, and along Coldwater Canyon Avenue. I got shady street parking for free on a blistering Sunday and started walking.
At Baca’s instigation, the mural was painted from 1974 to 1983 with the help of 400 youths, 40 artist assistants and 100 scholars. The mural elevates the roles of women and minorities, including onetime San Bernardino slave Biddy Mason and bandit Joaquin Murrieta.
We see indigenous people, the missions, the railroads. Chinese laborers care for citrus and Latino laborers pick it, in a scene that could be straight outta Riverside. The Chinese massacre of 1871, an event rarely mentioned before its 150th anniversary last fall, is memorialized.
The mural was prescient, that’s for sure. Dust Bowl refugees, the Zoot Suit Riots, Rosie the Riveter and the internment of Japanese Americans are all represented. Safer subjects like the Gold Rush, Red Cars and Charlie Chaplin are here too.
But so is postwar White flight to the suburbs, seen via a moving van with the sly business name White’s Moving. Is it polite to laugh out loud at a mural?
The panorama ends shortly after the Red Scare. Baca has said her dream is to bring it into the present, touching on lunch counter sit-ins, the political assassinations of the 1960s, the Chicano Moratorium of 1970 and later events.
A $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation last fall will make the expansion to a full mile possible. There are plans, too, for a footbridge over the wash.
In the meantime, the Long Beach exhibit is up through March 27, and the Great Wall seems destined to be around perpetually. If you love history, it’s worth seeing. Because this is one wall that’s also a window.
On Friday, Metrolink commuter rail will offer free rides all day as part of Transit Equity Day, the anniversary of Rosa Parks’ birthday. Some bus lines are doing the same. “Riders can simply arrive at a Metrolink station and board any train at no charge with no ticket required,” the agency says. If you have the day free, go explore, eat lunch somewhere or just gaze out the window as the scenery rolls by.
David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, days that roll by. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.