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An artist's incendiary painting is his bank statement

Alex Schaefer's depiction of a Chase branch going up in flames drew the attention of L.A. police, who asked if he was a terrorist. He said the work was a metaphor for the havoc banking practices have caused the economy.

August 28, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Artist Alex Schaefer stands in front of the Van Nuys bank that was the inspiration for his oil painting depicting the structure on fire.
Artist Alex Schaefer stands in front of the Van Nuys bank that was the inspiration… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Standing before an easel on a Van Nuys sidewalk, Alex Schaefer dabbed paint onto a canvas.

"There you have it," he said. "Inflammatory art."

The 22-by-28-inch en plein air oil painting is certainly hot enough to inflame Los Angeles police.

Twice they've come to investigate why the 41-year-old Eagle Rock artist is painting an image of a bank building going up in flames.

Schaefer had barely added the orange-and-yellow depiction of fire shooting from the roof of a Chase Bank branch when police rolled up to the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Sylvan Street on July 30.

"They told me that somebody had called and said they felt threatened by my painting," Schaefer said.

"They said they had to find out my intention. They asked if I was a terrorist and was I going to follow through and do what I was painting."

No, Schaefer said. He explained that the artwork was intended to be a visual metaphor for the havoc that banking practices have caused to the economy.

A terrorist certainly would not spend hours on a public sidewalk creating an oil painting of his intended target, he told the officers.

The police took down his name, address and telephone number on a form — Schaefer declined to provide his Social Security number — and departed.

"They were friendly. They weren't intimidating," he said. "I figured that when they left, they probably decided the episode was stupid and they'd just wad up the form and throw it away."

Wrong. On Tuesday, two more officers showed up at Schaefer's home. This time they were plainclothes detectives.

"One of them asked me, 'Do you hate banks? Do you plan to do that to the bank?' " Schaefer again explained what his painting symbolizes.

He is actually doing a series of paintings depicting banks ablaze, he said. His first one two months ago featured a Burbank Chase branch, and he has a Bank of America painting in progress, he said. He will feature other large banks' branches as well; he does his own banking at a small community bank, Schaefer said.

"The flames symbolize bringing the system down," he said. "Some might say that the banks are the terrorists."

Although police elsewhere have occasionally challenged photographers taking pictures of things like refineries and governmental buildings in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, questioning an artist slowly creating an oil painting "is a horribly Orwellian act," said Andrew McGregor, a photographer who sometimes displays his work alongside Schaefer's.

A graduate of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, Schaefer usually paints portraits, cityscapes and lush landscapes. He acknowledges that the bank series has overt political overtones.

The finished paintings will be displayed in a show called "Disaster Capitalism," scheduled for February at Inglewood's Beacon Arts Building, he said.

As Schaefer put the finishing touches on his Van Nuys bank painting, passersby stopped to admire his work.

"I like it. It is social justice," said Travis Stobbe, a Van Nuys apartment building owner.

Albert Acevedo, a salesman from Oxnard, snapped a photo of the painting with his cellphone. "This is great. I'm going in and withdrawing all my money out now," he joked.

Gary Kishner, a spokesman for Chase Bank, said his institution isn't sure what to make of Schaefer's work.

"It's a situation we don't take lightly. Hopefully, this is not what his actions are. It's kind of scary — you don't know what other people are thinking. We have to look out for the safety of our customers and employees," he said.

Schaefer said he has been surprised by the hubbub his burning bank has caused.

"I've only had two experiences with the police in my life, and these were both of them," he said. "I have this feeling I'll get different treatment at airports from now on."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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