Venice sculptor Robert Graham lives on through his son and the artists he mentored
By Christina Campodonico
When Steven Graham’s father — world-renowned sculptor and longtime Venice artist Robert Graham — died in 2008, he had to not only grapple with his grief but also figure out how to preserve his father’s artistic legacy.
Robert Graham’s dream studio — a project 25 years in the making, which Steven, an architect, had designed — had just been constructed, yet the estate was in disarray. Robert Graham had not planned for a retrospective. Nor had he catalogued his vast body of work, which ranged from small sculptures of female nudes to large public works such as the Olympic Gateway in front of the L.A. Coliseum, The Dance Door at the Music Center and The Venice Torso at Windward Circle.
“He really never looked back. He always looked forward to the next thing,” says Steven. “I really felt it was my responsibility to keep this going so I could complete the legacy.”
When Robert Graham’s home-studio on Windward Avenue (the big stainless-steel building near the Venice sign, where Graham lived with Steven’s stepmother, actress Anjelica Huston) sold in 2014, Steven had to find a new space to house his father’s work.
Steven Graham soon found a spot in nearby Culver City, transforming the space into a workshop and gallery,
where the show “Aftermath” is currently on view.
Interestingly, the elder Graham isn’t exactly the focal point of “Aftermath.” But his legacy ties the artwork of the K2S graffiti crew, L.A. portrait photographer Jim McHugh and the Los Angeles Riots together.
“It is really the ‘aftermath’ — the check in — of what everyone is doing today,” says Steven Graham, who curated the show and discussed the exhibition’s back story with me.
A year after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Robert Graham proposed a project to hire and train at-risk-youth in bronze casting at his studio. The training program, called the MOCA TORSO project, would produce a series of small bronze statuettes to be sold at MOCA’s bookstore and raise funds for the museum. Over three years, the studio produced more than 3,500 of these statues depicting a nude female torso that is now an iconic part of Robert Graham’s oeuvre.
Juan Carlos Muñoz Hernandez, a member of the K2S graffiti crew who signs his artwork “Heaven,” was one of the original youths who apprenticed under Graham and produced the sculptures.
For Hernandez, working with Robert Graham on the TORSO project changed his life. Raised in Boyle Heights’s Pico-Aliso housing project, Hernandez was immersed in the world of graffiti art, but it was meeting Robert Graham at his Venice studio that set Hernandez on the path to becoming a serious artist.
One day a twenty-something-year-old Hernandez was up on some scaffolding, working on a mural for Homeboy Industry’s Fr. Greg Boyle, when a friend of his from Youth Gang Services asked him if he wanted a job. Hernandez was doing anything he could to pay the rent and take care of his family, so he said yes and drove with his friend to Venice, not knowing quite what the job there entailed. The inner-city kid, who rarely ventured outside the neighborhood where he had grown up, was amazed by Venice’s beautiful beaches and entranced by Robert Graham’s wisdom.
“I didn’t know who he was at the time. He brought out a sculpture — a torso — and he goes, ‘Listen, I want to produce these, but I want each torso that’s produced to have a unique feeling.’ And I didn’t quite understand what he was saying. It took me quite a while to understand,” remembers Hernandez.
Now a professional artist with his own studio in Venice, Hernandez values the lessons that Robert Graham taught him about art and having a strong work ethic.
“I think once I started working with Robert Graham, I started taking art more seriously. You know, it was a lot of hard work, a lot of discipline. Even if you did a little inch square screw, it would have to be 100%, 110% perfect,” Hernandez says.
To this day, Hernandez applies the same level of painstaking effort and attention to detail to his own work. From afar his painting “Dragon Dog” is an explosion of pinks, reds and purples, unfurling like a flower in full bloom. But step a little closer and you’ll see precisely painted, multi-color lines running across the ruffled edges of bleeding ink.
“Every line is not like a struggle, but [I’m] very conscious of not losing that fine balance,” Hernandez says. “Like discipline and chaos in one little centimeter of space.”
Hernandez’s co-exhibitors and fellow K2S crew members similarly walk the fine line between organization and pandemonium. David “Big Sleeps” Cavazos’ paintings are exacting studies in rendering calligraphic scripts in repetitive arrangements. One of Joe “Prime” Reza’s paintings has a huge splash of black paint on it, like a splotch of blood staining the concrete after a sudden and lethal attack. Gajin Fujita’s work shows Asian warriors in the heat of battle. Alex “Defer” Kizu’s blue and gold swirls are prayer-like meditations in paint.
Jim McHugh, whose large scale Polaroid portraits of each of these artists hang in the corner, captures the calm and contemplative aspect of these artists as they stare into the camera, seeming to bare their souls with simple yet searching glances. McHugh had photographed the Torso Project for People magazine in 1993.
In the end, all roads, however winding, lead back to Robert Graham. A giant sculpture by the artist of a nude woman lying on her back and throwing her legs up into the air is a striking presence at
the center of the room. She’s covered in sinuous signatures, layers of color and a golden Phoenix. It looks like body paint or a tattoo. They’re all traces left by Heaven, Big Sleeps, Defer, Prime and Fujita — like a note of thanks to the past.
“Aftermath” is on view by appointment through June at the Robert Graham Studio, 5856 Adams Blvd., Culver City. Call (310) 399-5374 to arrange a viewing or visit robertgraham-artist.com for more information.
Big Sleeps, Heaven and Prime are leading a hands-on painting workshop from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 11. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased online at robertgrahamstudio.ticketspice.com/ticketsaftermathworkshop