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The Great Wall of Topanga: The Canyon's Drive-Through Art Gallery

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Wed, Sep 14, 2011 at 2:19 PM

click to enlarge A view of the Great Wall of Topanga in its glory days - COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman
  • A view of the Great Wall of Topanga in its glory days

Is there anything in L.A. that someone hasn't thought of converting into a drive-through? Art galleries are a rare exception, but on Topanga Canyon, that's about to change, too.

Commuters through the canyon might have noticed a change in the past months: a wall that forms the border of a private property and runs along Topanga Canyon Blvd. near Froggy's restaurant is now covered in art, proclaiming itself the "Great Wall of Topanga." This wall is the brainchild of Rick Denman -- professional bike racer, rigger, and longtime Topanga resident -- who one day got fed up with scrubbing graffiti off his wall and decided to give it a makeover.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman

The wall is a pretty large affair, and easily noticeable from a distance. Denman, wiry from years of biking in the surrounding mountains, is up most days doing maintenance on it. During a recent interview, he points up at a kindly, totem-like face, which he made with a jacuzzi cover, a vent pipe, and a kitchen sink. "You can see that from way up the road," he says proudly. It gazes back down at us, bemused. The wall is conspicuously bare that day, apart from two works by local artists and Denman's own crafty and fun assemblages. A hostile graffiti artist recently paid it a visit and tagged much of the artwork; Denman is currently at work restoring the vandalized pieces.

Denman decided to create the Great Wall of Topanga following a different graffiti incident: one morning, he woke up to find a picture of a Native American spray-painted on it. "Around the time of the Academy Awards, this stencil showed up on my wall, and I started getting neighbors I didn't even know come around to tell me, 'Hey, that might be a Banksy.' The Topanga Messenger wrote an article saying that the owner of this property might wake up to the sound of jackhammers of somebody trying to remove this piece, because Banksy's stuff is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars," he wryly explains. "That scared me."

click to enlarge The stencil by street artist Accountability, as well as a piece he later did at Denman's request - COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman
  • The stencil by street artist Accountability, as well as a piece he later did at Denman's request

Denman realized that the lone piece of graffiti would attract further taggers, so he acted quickly. The Great Wall of Topanga was born shortly before Carmageddon, a date on which the Topanga highway was sure to get a lot of traffic.

The week before the dreaded 405 shutdown, he put up the words 'Got Art?' as well as a limerick, which he now recites gleefully: "Your best work on wood six by eight / Cause July 16 is the date / The 405 closure / means lots of exposure / Get painting, don't procrastinate!"

"You couldn't read it at speed, but you could read it when traffic was backed up," he adds.

click to enlarge The original writing, complete with stress accents in the limerick - COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman
  • The original writing, complete with stress accents in the limerick

So far, so good. Inquiries slowly tricked in via the Great Wall's Facebook page, and it began filling up with art. Sometimes, people simply came in the middle of the day to hammer their stuff on the wall without even asking Denman. One day, an entire family inexplicably showed up to paint on it. Denman, who likes to keep things looking sharp, had to take action: "Not all of their drawings were that neat, so I painted over some of the sloppier stuff," he says, gesturing at faint, wobbly outlines of flowers and handprints.

click to enlarge Art by local artists periodically goes up on the wall. - COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman
  • Art by local artists periodically goes up on the wall.

Then, he hit an unexpected snag. A man from the local Department of Regional Planning office came by to tell him they had received complaints. Denman was incredulous. He then received a letter from the Department that accused him of unlawfully soliciting art, and warned him that unless he took down the words "Got Art?," he would be fined $2,366 for outdoor advertising.

click to enlarge Following an inspection by the Regional Planning Office, Denman had to rethink his signs creatively. - COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman
  • Following an inspection by the Regional Planning Office, Denman had to rethink his signs creatively.

Denman called up the county and asked if he could at least have "Art?" up on the wall, and received no objections to that. He rummaged through a shipping container of junk in his backyard, and eventually made a colorful sign by assembling old crutches, brooms, a bedframe, and electrical equipment. The question mark stayed up, but turned into a lamp. Denman adds, "Everybody loves the question mark, because it looks like the logo of Pixar."

He also had to paint over the wall's name, which was considered illegal advertising by the county because it had a Facebook thumbs-up symbol next to it. Now, it just says "Topanga." Denman was considering changing it to say "Welcome to Topanga," so he emailed the Planning office to ask if that was acceptable. Unfortunately, they answered that he would have to pay a $2,000 fee to install a sign with that phrase. He shrugs. "I guess I can wait until they actually cite me for using the word 'Topanga.'"

click to enlarge A close-up of a giant rat trap that Denman was also asked to take down by a highway patrol officer because it was a "hazard to stopped cyclists" - COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman
  • A close-up of a giant rat trap that Denman was also asked to take down by a highway patrol officer because it was a "hazard to stopped cyclists"

This wasn't the first time that Denman had received a threatening call about his wall. He initially began writing on it as a way to get in touch with a tenant who wasn't paying the rent anymore. The tenant's friends were apparently unaware of her situation until Denman wrote her name up on his wall followed by the slightly baroque phrase, "We need to talk ere tomorrow." A message exchange followed. Though his tenant then called the sheriff and threatened to sue Denman over the incident, the sheriff decided that it was well within Denman's rights to use the wall as a last-resort billboard. Fortunately, the conflict soon resolved itself.

click to enlarge A close-up of Denman's totem face, before it was rigged up on the wall - COURTESY OF RICK DENMAN
  • Courtesy of Rick Denman
  • A close-up of Denman's totem face, before it was rigged up on the wall

Denman's still trying to figure out how to run his drive-through art gallery while keeping everyone happy. Made wary by his run-ins with the planning authorities, he's been somewhat shy in identifying himself as the owner. Among Topanga residents, he says, "I was hesitant to bring it up for a while, until someone had said that they liked it." But now that it's a hit with the community, Denman intends to step up the pace, hoping to eventually partner with artists and studios around Topanga.

"I would like help coming up with a logo that says 'Great Wall of Topanga' without words. What I'm thinking is a classic image of the Great Wall of China, except this one's going to go down to the beach with a palm tree in front of the ocean," he says. Any takers?

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