It’s May Day! A perfect day to honor an American artist who paints images that disturb the 1%.
Los Angeles area artist Alex Schaefer has a sideline that has won him a fair bit of attention over the years. He likes to paint canvases of bank branches—most often Chase Bank—engulfed in flames. Make no mistake, you’re reading him correctly. He doesn’t like banks, and his paintings are a legitimate form of protest. He calls his images “disaster capitalism.”
Schaefer has actually incorporated his art in protests he attends, as this picture of him on May Day 2012—exactly five years ago—attests:
His method varies: In this canvas there is a Chase Bank engulfed in flames but there is an extra element, the Chase logo with the ironic word “freedom” next to it. Occasionally the burning bank will be obscured by a word salad of protest featuring terms like laundering, terrorism, and crime. In some canvases the target of his pyrophilic approach is Bank of America.
One startling image shows an actual lynch mob. Have a look:
My favorite examples of his art, however, are free of commentary—just the burning Chase Banks, that’s plenty for me.
Unsurprisingly, people have had a strong reaction to Schaefer’s images. To KCET Schaefer described the act of setting up an easel across from a Chase Bank in Van Nuys and commencing a canvas:
Once it was sketched out I started immediately with the flames. That was the first paint that I put on the canvas. So I led with the message, which was a bold move. The reaction of everyone who commented was positive. Thumbs up. [People would say] “They suck.” “they screwed my checking account,” “my brother’s losing his home.” I could feel that the image was a catharsis for lots of people. Three hours into it the police came and the rest is history.
The artist’s Schaefer’s easel as he captures the Chase Bank on 725 Sout Figueroa Street in Los Angeles
Naturally, the police have taken an interest in a painter who enjoys depicting what might be considered felonies. We’re in a post-9/11 world, so that means someone will invoke “national security.” As Schaefer said to KCET:
It’s a fact that homeland security considers drawing or photographing “sensitive” locations and buildings is suspicious activity. But my painting protest is different because it’s so slow and blatant. I was not “casing” the location. I was standing on the street in full view painting for four hours, talking with people, interacting. I suspect it was someone from the bank that notified authorities that they are “threatened” by my painting. And that was the exact word the police used when first confronting me. Someone was “threatened” by my art and called them.