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November 15–December 12, 1982, University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach

Vapor Dreams in L.A.
Terry Schoonhoven's Empty Stage

The Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad
by Kirsten Jacobs Whalen

The Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad began as a collaboration between Terry Schoonhoven and Victor Henderson. Shared interests in art philosophy and similar stylistic approaches in their painting sparked the formation of the partnership. Both men received training in an academic environment and were still in the process of developing their own styles when they joined forces in 1969.

The social and political climate of Venice, where both Schoonhoven and Henderson were working, and of much of California in 1969 encouraged the rejection of conventional and established media, methods, and institutions. In the visual arts, this movement brought on the breakdown of the traditional categories of art. Artists sought new audiences and new forms of expression. White walls, billboards, phonograph record jackets, and other traditionally commercial outlets offered a new forum for artists which not only expanded their audience beyond the confines of the museum/gallery, but more successfully placed their work in the public eye. Billboards, specifically those on the famed Sunset Strip, were a phenomenon closely monitored by the art community. The painting style demanded by the extraordinary size of these works and the Pop-like use of imagery made an impression on artists.

The Fine Arts Squad was a product of this time and an extension of this rebellion. Both Schoonhoven and Henderson felt a desire to get out of the studio and take their art into the community, eliminating the art world middleman. Henderson was particularly frustrated with the gallery system and its elitism. By painting walls in unconventional places, no one could "own" their work as art, nor could it be removed from the context in which it had been created. "The resulting paintings were complex and as completely crafted as any gallery works. They were also immovable and unprotected, subject to wear and tear of the environment."3 Schoonhoven and Henderson actually succeeded in eluding, for a brief moment, the critics, collectors, and tastemakers. Their works provided an accessible art form for a much wider and more varied audience than a majority of the visual arts commanded at that time.

The Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad's name itself represents an important aspect of this partnership. It is the signature representing the collaboration of its members. Functioning as a trademark, it represents all of the ideas and intentions of the original partnership, whether the work was done by one member or four. The cultural climate in Venice in the sixties emphasized a communal lifestyle, one in which tasks were accomplished by cooperative efforts. Collaboration was one of the fundamental concepts upon which the Fine Arts Squad was founded. The union of the ideas and talents of its members, and the compromise of their differences, created the style that was uniquely the Fine Arts Squad's. Henderson has equated the cooperation among those in the group to that among members of any of the popular musical groups of the sixties which, to him, represented examples of successful creative collaboration.

Schoonhoven and Henderson began their first work together in March, 1969. This initial joint venture stemmed from a suggestion that they might use billboard space as a forum for their art. Instead of a billboard, they decided to work on the back wall of Henderson's studio. They chose a simple environmental view of Brooks Street. This Brooks Street Painting remains today, incomplete. Midway through this project, Leonard Koren and Jim Frazen began visiting the site and assisting with some of the painting. Both Koren and Frazen were students of Schoonhoven's in a lithography class that he was teaching at UCLA. On one occasion, Mike Hewitt, the owner of the Climax Club (La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Hills) stopped, and inquired whether they would be interested in painting a mural on the club's wall. "Instead of two people saying yes, four people said yes," and the Fine Arts Squad partnership acquired, rather informally, two new members.

The Climax Club mural, Beverly Hills Siddartha, was a satire on Herman Hesse's novel Siddartha. The painting wrapped around 15,000 square feet of the building, camouflaging an ungainly piece of architecture. The theme of this work, the symbolic journey of a young man in search of himself, was portrayed in a narrative sequence executed in a series of panels. This format allowed enough latitude for four different artists to express themselves, yet still successfully produce a cohesive work. This piece was very different in character from subsequent Fine Arts Squad works and was also the only piece on which all four members worked.

Midway through the project the sponsor was unable to continue funding the mural. Jerry Rosen, an attorney and art collector, stepped in and underwrote the completion of the unfinished painting and, in addition, funded the production of "The Fine Arts Squad in Hollywood," a fantasy documentary film by Koren devoted to the mural.

The tensions and conflicts that developed during the collaboration on Beverly Hills Siddartha pushed the members of the group in different directions. Schoonhoven and Henderson, bound by their stronger commitment to wall painting and similar realistic style, remained the core of the group. Frazen continued to do a limited amount of work with them, participating in three more projects. However, a serious personal injury and a growing dissatisfaction with wall painting prompted him to move on. Koren's interest in other media peaked with his work on the documentary film. He gradually stopped painting and began to serve, for a short time, as the group's promoter.

With the interest and support of Jerry Rosen, the Fine Arts Squad moved on to a new wall and a new mural: Venice in the Snow (1970) (fig. 1). This wall, owned by Jackie Greber, was located on Oceanfront Walk in Venice. They drew their inspiration from the surrounding environment, creating a life-size version of the Venice oceanfront with a twist - in the sky was a menacing storm and on the ground was a blanket of snow! It was this mural which set the recurring theme of subtle social commentary illustrated in a realistic yet ironic manner. Such illusions were to become the trademark of future Fine Arts Squad work. The paradoxical view of Venice in the Snow captured the imagination of the community; however, even public interest could not prevent this piece from being obscured by an apartment complex a year later.

Neither Venice in the Snow nor Beverly Hills Siddartha can be seen today. Both fell victim to changes and new developments in their respective environments. This aspect of wall painting, though often disappointing and frustrating, adds another dimension to the different nature of these non-gallery works. In addition to human interference, the natural elements produce changes as well: colors fade, paint chips and peels. "Realistically, the pieces are eventually going to disintegrate. I think it's important to realize they exist as an event, peak out, and then decay."6 Neither artist would consider repainting one of their decaying murals, as the deterioration is part of the work's existence.

The year 1971 offered a variety of opportunities for the Fine Arts Squad. In the spring, they began work on the wall of a building owned by Geordie Hormel. This mural, the Isle of California (fig. 4), represents, in Schoonhoven's opinion, the most successful Fine Arts Squad work, achieving in content and style what they had originally intended. Its subtle commentary is even more refined than that of Venice in the Snow. The illusion is convincing and complete.

The Fine Arts Squad's use of illusion is a trademark of its style. Often referred to as tromp l'oeil, these images are not "fool the eye" illusions. They are creative exercises for the mind, not tricks for the eye. The Fine Arts Squad embraced the concept of illusion in a general manner, creating fantasy environments which enticed the viewer with their potential reality. Although the subject matter of these works is illusionary, the artists did not use traditional techniques of illusion in executing these paintings. Nor can the style be described as "photorealist," although the Fine Arts Squad did use photography to help create their paintings. Selected photographs were used as references for proportion, texture, color, etc., however, the painting style is far from being a hard-edge version of reality. It is characterized by a softer use of paint and color, creating a more dreamlike image.

Humor and irony are other important, consistent elements of the work. It is possibly these aspects which make the wall paintings so appealing to viewers outside the art community. The images of Venice in the Snow and Isle of California are often described as "apocalyptic visions,"? yet they are more humorous illusions than they are disastrous forecasts. They are calm, matter-of-fact fantasies which subtly poke friendly fun at our society's human centered attitudes, as well as our common fears.

While the Isle of California was in progress, Schoonhoven and Henderson stopped to paint a commissioned piece, Black Submarine, for the New Paintings in Los Angeles exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Tom Garver, director of the Museum, had been acquainted with Henderson's work prior to the formation of the partnership, and had followed the progress of the Fine Arts Squad.8 This commission marked the first important recognition of the works of the Fine Arts Squad by an established art institution.

Despite the Fine Arts Squad's professed opposition to the gallery and art collecting worlds, collectors, dealers, and curators such as Jerry Rosen, Eugenia Butler, Stanley Grinstein, and Betty Gold had supported some of the group's earlier works and now the Newport Harbor Art Museum featured their work in an exhibition. Unlike that of other wall painting at that time, the Fine Arts Squad style was not purely graphic, nor was it political; it was essentially traditional painting. Only the issues raised by the nature of their work, such as impermanence, immobility, and ownership separated it from gallery painting. The art establishment did respond and the Fine Arts Squad found itself a part of the museum/gallery system which it had so strongly denounced.

In addition to the Newport Harbor piece, the Fine Arts Squad produced another mural during the painting of the Isle of California. Leonard Koren, acting as promoter, secured a commission from the French Government for the Biennale de Paris 1971. This painting, an illusion entitled Hippie Know How, took only six weeks to complete. Schoonhoven, Henderson, and Koren worked on the painting, as did Peter Martin, a French artist who joined the group for this one project. Schoonhoven and Henderson completed the Isle of California, April, 1972, and the Fine Arts Squad was reduced once again to the original partnership of two.

The last work Schoonhoven and Henderson would collaborate on was a mural commissioned by Edwin Janss, Jr. in Thousand Oaks. Known as Ghost Town, it depicts a complex view of the San Fernando Valley returned to its deserted, barren condition - reflected in the windows of a building. Again, the powerful element of illusion is central to the narrative style of this work.

In 1974, Schoonhoven and Henderson dissolved their partnership. After five years of intense cooperation, the time had come to pursue more individual efforts. Henderson returned to painting on canvas. His style has since moved away from the realistic, figurative style to a very personal expression.

Schoonhoven has continued wall painting, carrying on the Fine Arts Squad name until 1979 when he replaced this signature with his own. The Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad name was maintained through 1979 for practical reasons as the increased recognition of the collaborative works created interest in and requests for new murals. In 1975, Schoonhoven was invited as the Fine Arts Squad to produce an interior wall painting at Newport Harbor Art Museum in conjunction with an exhibition of his studio work. The resulting Sons of the Desert mural was painted on linen canvas and hung on the wall for the exhibition. The Walker Art Center contacted Schoonhoven in 1976, requesting a mural by the Fine Arts Squad for their upcoming exhibition, The River: Images of the Mississippi. He painted No River (fig. 6), an image of Minneapolis and a dry Mississippi River bed.

From 1974, when Henderson left, through 1979 Schoonhoven completed seven murals. The last work which Schoonhoven signed with the Fine Arts Squad name was completed in 1979, ten years after the partnership began. In his work he has maintained the same basic themes and intentions expressed in the earlier collaborative works, but, in Schoonhoven's mind, the last Fine Arts Squad work, St. Charles Painting (fig. 13), marks a transition. The transition is from the inferences associated with the Fine Arts Squad name to a newer, exclusively Schoonhoven expression.

The Fine Arts Squad was a dynamic group. The members gathered informally in 1969, bringing together their own ideas and talents; then, slowly, as each member's own concerns and philosophies changed, each moved on to pursue his own work. Consequently, the various works signed the "Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad" are the result of a collaboration which was always evolving.

Change is also inherent in the works. The process by which the paintings were executed provided for the audience's immediate participation during the creation of the work. From conception to completion, each idea was subject to feedback from the public. The work was never static. Once the image was completed, it remained, unprotected, in the environment, to react and change with human and natural interference, until it became, in Schoonhoven's words, "a mere shadow of what it once was."

The Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad is a study in artistic collaboration. Collaborative efforts have not been as common in the visual arts as they have been in the musical and theatrical arts, and both Schoonhoven and Henderson stress the importance of this unique aspect of the Fine Arts Squad's works. Four different artists combined resources to create a new and different product which could not have been created by anyone of its members alone. Schoonhoven and Henderson continue to create occasional works in collaboration with other artists and are pursuing projects which expand the original concept of the Fine Arts Squad. However, while they were once alone in their radical approach, many artists are now experimenting with collaborative efforts, broadening the scope and audience of the visual arts.