On November 1, the day after Halloween and roughly three weeks after the titillating shredding of the Banksy painting Girl With Balloon during an auction at Sotheby’s in London, a large blue and green painting will be destroyed at the Elisabeth Jones Art Center. The painting, Danger, Little One, features a large pair of bears in the polar lights looming over a small polar bear on a melting ice floe. It faces a grisly ending: It’ll be pierced, jabbed, sanded, attacked with power tools that whine like dentists’ drills, smashed to smithereens.
Banksy see, Banksy do? To be fair, the Portland art center got there first.
In early August, two months before The Shredding That Shook The Art World (although Banksy had planned it earlier), the Elisabeth Jones center had destroyed another large painting, Peaceable Kingdom, which also depicted polar bears, these ones swimming happily along with fish and sea mammals in a dream of non-imperiled status. And John Teply, the center’s director, has done this sort of thing before. In the 1980s, in Santa Cruz County, California, he created a 30-foot-long outdoor painting, Wingspread, and then had it bulldozed as onlookers watched, aghast.
Artist Elliott Wall was one of a small group that, as he puts it, “conspired to destroy” Peaceable Kingdom in August. “There were a lot of complaints,” he recalls. “People were crying. They were really attached to the painting.” He pauses, then adds, genially: “And I think that was a really good response.”
The art world is filled with examples of temporary artworks, such as Cristo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapping of the Reichstag, and naturally evolving pieces, such as Buster Simpson’s Host Analog, a series of eight long sections of ancient Douglas Fir log that were placed outside the Oregon Convention Center and used as nursing logs for new growth. But deliberate destruction is something else. More than one artist has been known to trash a piece that wasn’t working out, or maybe just paint over it. Near the end of the 15th century the religious fanatic Savonarola fed all sorts of “sinful” art, quite likely including works by Botticelli and Fra Bartolomeo, into the flames of his Bonfire of the Vanities. In 1949 California artist David Park, in an act of private frustration and public provocation, tossed all of his abstract expressionist paintings into the Berkeley city garbage dump and helped spark the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Banksy had his reasons. So does Teply.
Danger, Little One is part of an ongoing project called A World Without Ice, which also includes several nicely done stoneware pieces depicting polar bears by Leslie Green. Danger, like Peaceable Kingdom, was created by a group of artists working collaboratively under Teply’s direction with the express purpose, in these two cases, of creating a work to be destroyed. As with other works at the center that deal with blue fin tuna (overharvested for sushi), sharks (a numerical nosedive over shark fin soup), and various birds whose existence is endangered, they are, despite their traditional appearances, works of radical activism. “The whole idea is pretty simple,” Teply says. “Beautiful things are disappearing before our very eyes.” From that perspective, a painting is only a painting, and destroying one becomes a metaphor, the active core of a work of conceptual art. Once a species is gone, it’s gone.
Environmental and cultural concerns are central to the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, which opened in the western reaches of the Pearl District in June with The Condor and the Eagle: Moving Forward After Standing Rock, an ambitious debut exhibition that brought together the work of indigenous artists from across the nation who had links to the Dakota Access oil-pipeline standoff. The center takes art as a verb, something to act and be acted upon. Much of the work it shows is very traditional, figurative representation, but its true purpose is in the action that it hopes to spark.
That’s true with the major current exhibition, For the Seventh Generation, which is on view through November 15. Walk through the doors, past the 22-foot-long mural of a shark, and you’re engulfed in water. Water, water, everywhere, from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, a rolling tide of seacoast and all that comes with it: rocks, islands, trees, sand, sometimes even a person or a car or a stretch of road along the edge. A tidal wave of paintings, in all sorts of styles from all sorts of hands, mostly naturalistic but sometimes highly stylized, or even chunky with bits of broken pottery to suggest the geological roughness of the coast itself.
It’s sink or swim in this show, which consists of dozens upon dozens of paintings, each two feet by four feet in a simple frame, and each representing a mile of Pacific coastline between the Mexican and Canadian borders. “We’re working on a two foot by one mile mural,” Teply says. “The ultimate goal is to have 1,320 paintings, for the 1,320 miles of California to Washington shoreline.”
As the exhibition’s title suggests, this show is as much about social and environmental concerns (one makes decisions not for short-term gain but considering long-term needs to the seventh generation in the future) as it is about aesthetics, although Teply’s goal is to maintain artistic quality, too. Teply began the coastline project in California in 1999, put it on hiatus for several years, and has now brought it back. Each artist has control over how to depict his or her mile of coastline, which the artist often chooses but which is subject to swapping if more than one artist is interested in the same stretch of shore (“Not everyone gets to paint Haystack Rock,” as Teply puts it), and the activism carries through to the point of sale: a third of the sale price is donated to a conservation group of the artist’s choice. Each artist is asked to include a horizontal element a third of the way down on the painting and a third of the way up. “What that does is, you look along, it creates a consistent pattern,” Teply says – a subtle wave motion that carries from painting to painting in the rows upon rows on the walls, creating a whole that is greater than its parts.
Wall, the destroyer of the Peaceable Kingdom, is also the art center’s coordinator of its Tree Emergency Response Team, which a couple of weekends ago, for the third time since the center opened, fanned out across the St. Johns neighborhood to do plein air paintings of targeted trees. These are not just any trees, but trees that the artists believe are vital to the future of a rapidly changing neighborhood, and which might be cut down as lots are cleared to make way for denser development. “The first thing is to get the neighborhood to notice them,” Teply says.
So every week Wall scans the public records, looking for news of new developments in the works. The project has homed in on five long-established trees where development is probable. Its goal is not to stop the development but to get the trees worked into development plans so they’re included as part of the final result. Their tools include paintbrushes and postcards. October’s plein air painting party was the third in a process that has included, Wall says, “at least 50 painters. And that’s just for the tree emergency response team. We have only been doing this since May. So I think it’s been an amazing response.”
How can paintings save the trees? Good question. The plan is this: Make the neighborhood and the developer aware of them. Take photos. Make paintings. Once you’ve finished your painting, send a postcard to the developer with an image and a request. “Dear Mr. [developer’s name],” one reads. “On your [street address] property, there are two beautiful maple trees. For many years they have contributed much to our community and we would like to see that continue. We are asking that whatever development you decide on, that you will incorporate these trees into the design.” Finally, make a calendar from the plein air paintings, and send one to each of the developers.
Can some paintings and gentle persuasion alter the course of business as usual? Art might save lives, but can it save trees in a development-friendly city? Keep an eye on St. Johns and see what stands or falls. Meanwhile, as climate change and human activity alter the future for the world’s many species, mark your calendars for the optimistically provocative mutilation and destruction of Danger, Little One. It’s a bonfire, we can only hope, that will not be in vain.