Plein air artist Alex Schaefer collides with the commercialization of art and and activism

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When the art world collides with the “real” world, interesting things happen. Plein Air painter Alex Schaefer has been questioned by the police and arrested for is artwork. He is most famous for his “burning bank” paintings in which he stood on the sidewalk outside of banks and painted portraits of them in flames.

Chase Bank on Wilshire (Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)
Chase Bank on Wilshire
(Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)

He most recently helped design the Rose Parade float for the Occupy Fights Foreclosures group.

We talked about art, politics, and economics. Here’s what he had to say:

Cat Doss: So, I wanted to start by talking about your burning bank paintings.

Alex Schaefer: Sure. They were a reaction to my frustration.

It was a way to combine my love and interest in Plein Air painting with simply saying something or expressing my disbelief in what I saw: a criminality in the financial sector. It was, in a sense, performance art. Nothing really happened right away. Mind you this was all before Occupy was happening. No one was protesting. That was what was so jaw dropping to me given what I was reading in the news.

CD: But you kind of got pulled into that movement anyway. How did it affect your ability to show and sell your work?

AS: Well, I painted the painting in July, and Occupy started in September so there was an interesting period in between.

Police harassment of artist (Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)
Police harassment of artist
(Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)

CD: What was that like?

AS: I was questioned by police on the street for the painting because a passerby thought it was “threatening,” but it wasn’t until three weeks later when detectives came to my house and the LA Times heard that, that the story blew up …

CD: And once the movement caught on, was the public more supportive of your work?

AS: The art world is a strange place. My message in those burning bank paintings does not go well with the “blue chip” art world in New York. There are different levels to the art world — to art world prestige and recognition. I’m not sure what I think of that battle sometimes.

CD: Being recognized for something so specific, do you ever find yourself being pigeonholed?

AS: No, I don’t feel pigeonholed. I feel like I’m barely on the fringe of recognition at all! Ahahaha!

CD: How do you feel the political/economic landscape has changed since the bank-painting debacle?

Police harassing the artist. Wearing glasses and having a blonde beard are his “Personal Oddities.” (Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)
Police harassing the artist. Wearing glasses and having a blonde beard are his “Personal Oddities.”
(Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)

AS: It’s worse: worse politically, worse economically, and worse with regard to privacy and liberty.

CD: Do you think it’s important for artists to use their work to speak out?

AS: I don’t know if it will make any difference at this point. They got away with it. The justice dept is inept and fails to prosecute. Three years ago I never would have conceived that the plates on Wall Street would still be spinning but they are. I just feel like we are living in a fiction. There is no “recovery,” Things are not better. I feel like trying to make political art for me is over.

CD: What kinds of things are you painting when you’re not painting burning banks?

AS: Anything: cityscapes, portraits, random bullshit. I like to mess around a lot and be free to fail and experiment. Right now I’m finishing up a bunch of Christmas card paintings for people. It’s another experiment.

CD: How do you want the world to view you and your art?

Photo provided by Alex Schaefer
Photo provided by Alex Schaefer

AS: I want to be looked at and respected as a painter above all else for sure. I don’t feel like an “activist” per se, nor do I feel like I know what it’s going to take to affect real change. I’m in an interesting frame of mind these days. Occupy and protest seems like so long ago — no?

Nothing has improved, but they are selling Occupy posters at Wal-Mart if that is progress. I’m sure that Wal-Mart subcontracts the online print stuff to some other company who has their own process for picking poster images, but it’s funny and sad. We consume so much so fast, it’s scary. Occupy has been digested and product-ified.

CD: Would you say the same has happened to art?

AS: Hmm. I think that — especially maybe in LA — there is a very “consumer product” orientation that artists adapt — artists who have a “brand,” a personal look or character. It’s very un-punk rock.

Punk rock is there, but still crashing around in the basement. Street art is super brand-oriented. People there want to create the icon that they can sell forever, e.g. OBEY stickers.

Words Fargo (Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)
Words Fargo
(Photo provided by Alex Schaefer)

I’m not sure if that’s “good” for art, but the artists are good at something. There are million dollar artists that are sellouts and people who no one has even heard of, who are sellouts.

I ultimately have respect for anyone trying to make it in life by the creations of their own hand. It’s magic, and, in one sense, art can “save” the economy! Ahahhahaha! It certainly is a place for excess liquidity to flow.

CD: So, overall, would you say that the art world is changing for the better or for the worse?

AS: I think the art world is the same as always, I enjoy seeing how the internet is changing it/forcing it to change. It doesn’t want to change, just like the music industry doesn’t want to change, but it’s happening and it can’t be stopped and it’s a sight to see.

CD: Indeed it is. Thank you so much for doing the interview, Alex!


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