Category: LACMA

LACMA Halloween Nightmare

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Hallowe’en… what fearfu’ pranks ensue! This October 26, 2013, the trendy vampires and way-out ogres of Los Angeles will shamble and hobble their way to the 10th-annual “Muse Costume Ball” thrown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

By a route obscure and lonely, haunted by ill angels only, the museum promotes their monstrous masquerade ball as “haunted by the ghosts of old Hollywood,” and entreats those who are fearless enough to attend, to “make your red-carpet debut and toast the town, but don’t be surprised if you feel some darkness lurking behind the red carpet.”

Oh yes dear baddies and cackling cacodemons, there are evildoing specters oozing, percolating, leaking, and bleeding all over the LACMA campus, and the foul spirits reek of viscous crude oil!

Ghoulies and harpies attending the Muse Costume Ball will be bedeviled, and distressed by various exhibits and art happenings in and around the unholy grounds of LACMA.

Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes will regale rapscallions and banshees alike with their clichéd sultriness, Theophilus London will get dem dry bones clattering with the type of rap so fresh that it makes a George Romero reanimated corpse look like a newborn, and Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group will do their very best to scare the bejesus out of bored, jaded, trend mongering, L.A. bon vivants. For youse jack-o-lantern headed, worm-eaten postmodern art loving goons, you can feast yer vacant eyes on Richard Serra’s Whatchamacallit, Bruce Nauman’s Gang Signs For Beginners, or Chris Burden’s super expensive Tonka Toy set, Metropolis I love you. Wow, all those performers and artists… really scary stuff.

Alternative BP logo - Based on Edvard Munch's artwork, "The Scream" © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Based on Edvard Munch's artwork, "The Scream" © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

A horrid night will be had by undead art superstars, devilish art critics, and other ne’er-do-wells, but perhaps the most disagreeable and ghastly evening will be had by none other than Michael Govan, the Director, CEO, and numero uno mischievous sprite of LACMA.

It is rumored that Govan will make an important announcement at LACMA’s Muse Costume Ball, the acquisition of a most important “land art” masterpiece from New York based conceptual artist, Bob Dudley.

Titled Massive Tar Mat, Dudley’s earth art magnum opus makes use of natural materials from the Gulf of Mexico; sand, shells, water, and a few lifeless sea creatures. The controversial work of genius is said to measure 165 feet long by 65 feet wide, and Govan has secretively kept the piece underwraps, though it is beginning to stink of petroleum and death.

Dudley’s Massive Tar Mat was purchased for an undisclosed price rumored to be as high as $18 billion. Much bigger and far more expensive than Michael Heizer’s $10 million boulder, Levitated Mass, Dudley’s tour de force will no doubt put LACMA on the map for worldwide art tourism. No-goodniks and wraiths at the Muse Costume Ball will breathlessly be anticipating the unveiling of Dudley’s masterwork.

Alternative BP logo  - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Meanwhile, there are those interfering and annoying do-gooders who just want to spoil a damned good night of mischief-making.

The California Attorney General has filed a lawsuit against BP for violating state law on handling hazardous materials and toxic waste, accusing BP of endangering public health by not properly inspecting and maintaining underground gasoline storage tanks for 750 California gas stations.

Oh come on, why be so upset about a little lethal waste? Besides, BP is a major contributor to LACMA, how can the museum keep telling people of BP’s “commitment to sustainable energy” with the state of California suing the oil giant?

But wait, there is more… paranormal events have been spooking LACMA’s grounds in the days just before the Muse Costume Ball. The disembodied spirits of the 11 workers killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 26, 2010, have been seen on the roof of LACMA’s “BP Grand Entrance.” Atop that wretched entry, the ghostly workers reenact desperate attempts to evacuate the burning oil rig that led to their demise. No doubt the specters will continue to haunt LACMA’s entrance as long as it bears such a hellish name.

Alternative BP logo  - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Museum patrons have reported that poltergeists have rebuilt the large reflecting pools of water that once graced LACMA’s grounds. Younger Angelenos will not remember the pools on Wilshire Boulevard that nearly surrounded the entire museum in its early years.

Because oil from the nearby La Brea Tar Pits continually seeped into those lovely pools, they were emptied of water and eventually filled in; a portent of LACMA actually becoming the oil museum. But since poltergeists love to plague and pester, they have created phantom pools containing not water, but tar balls and smelly petroleum.

Those who have seen the mirage-like black pools swear they contain horribly mutated sea creatures from BP’s Gulf disaster; shrimp born without eyes, clawless crabs, fish with oozing sores and other nightmares.

When on October 26, hipster hobgoblins, suburbanite zombies, and edgy demons with androgynous hair cuts try and make their way to LACMA’s Muse Costume Ball, they may well have to circumnavigate Bob Dudley’s malodorous Massive Tar Mat, a phantasm burning oil rig, and some really pissed-off mutant sea creatures in order to do so. Not to mention encountering the scary Attorney General of California gnashing her teeth out in front of the BP Grand Entrance.

Oh, and there is one more nightmarish thing to deal with, ticket prices. LACMA’s monster mash is not for bête noire proletarian miscreants, it is strictly for upper-crust bloodsuckers and villainess socialites. At $100 per general admission ticket, what is a poor working ghoul to do?

Ya know… creeps and bugaboos might be better off staying at home and watching reruns of The Walking Dead.

Celebrate Earth Day with BP!

One of the thousands of seabirds killed by BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Photograph by Charlie Riedel © for Associated Press.

One of the thousands of seabirds killed by BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Photograph by Charlie Riedel © for Associated Press.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), sponsored by the multinational oil company BP - responsible for the biggest toxic oil spill in history, had the unmitigated gall to organize “greenwashing” activities on its museum campus for Earth Day.

Posting an announcement on the LACMA website for the April 21, 2013 Earth Day activities, the museum gave its day of programs the ill-chosen title, “Because Earth without Art is Just ‘Eh’”.

While LACMA invites people to walk through its “BP Grand Entrance” to celebrate Earth Day - Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have filed lawsuits against LACMA’s oily sponsor over the incalculable damages their states suffered because of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. LACMA’s announcement reads as follows:

Earth Day: Because Earth without Art is Just “Eh”
Sunday, April 21, 2013 | 11 am

Celebrate Earth Day with a day of programs and activities designed for all ages, including artist-led workshops, tours of the collection for families and adults, a nature-inspired poetry workshop for adults, sketching from nature, music jam with instruments made of recycled materials, and a guided walkthrough of the natural art on campus. You and your freinds (sic) can organize your own community bike ride to LACMA! If you plan to travel to LACMA by bike on Earth Day, be sure to check out LADOT’s bike maps for a safe route.

*Does not include admission to Stanley Kubrick.

BP Grand Entrance l View full schedule | General museum admission is required; free museum admission will be granted to those with a bike helmet, or those who have traveled by alternative transportation.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, 5/1/2013, LACMA sent out its May newsletter to the public with a “Corporate Member Update”. In a single perfunctory sentence, the newsletter informed readers that the museum was “pleased to announce” the renewal of corporate sponsorship from BP. No further details were offered. Meanwhile, in the reality based community, people are paying attention to the ongoing “Clean Water Act” trial BP faces in New Orleans, Louisiana. The proceedings will establish whether BP was guilty of “gross negligence” in running its Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. If found guilty, the oil giant could face a $21 billion fine. A ruling is expected sometime in September.

BP, LACMA, & the Gulf Oil Spill

This June 3, 2010 photograph by AP photographer Charlie Riedel shows a seagull trapped in oil along the Louisiana coast after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This June 3, 2010 photo by AP photographer Charlie Riedel shows a seagull trapped in oil along the Louisiana coast after the catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

With scarcely any coverage on televised news, multinational oil company BP pleaded guilty on November 15, 2012, to 14 criminal charges related to the death of 11 oil rig workers and the corporation having spilled over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion in criminal penalties for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster - the biggest fine in U.S. history for the largest ecological catastrophe in U.S. history.

From a strictly monetary perspective, BP’s oil spill caused tens of billions of dollars in economic and environmental damage, but really, what are the lives of 11 oil rig workers actually worth in dollars? What is the true cost of the destroyed fishing industries that once thrived in the Gulf of Mexico? What dollar amount does one attach to the 68,000 square miles of ocean that BP covered in a massive oil slick? How does one put a price on the more than 6,000 seabirds, 600 turtles, and 500 dolphins found dead as a result of the spill? For answers to those questions, ask Michael Govan, the Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

In 2007 Michael Govan accepted a $25 million “donation” from BP on behalf of LACMA, stating publicly that the oil giant was a “green company”. After naming the entry way of LACMA’s newly renovated campus “The BP Grand Entrance”, Govan told the Los Angeles Times that he had accepted BP’s money since: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy (….) We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.” To this day Govan has not made a single public statement about BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster.

In the Nov. 15, 2012 announcement, BP pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts and three misdemeanor counts, one of which included the obstruction of the U.S. Congress. Separate and multiple damage claims are currently being sought against BP by several Gulf Coast states and private plaintiffs. Dead or dying seabirds and sea creatures are still being found in the Gulf. A recent study mentioned in Discovery News found that the two million gallons of chemical dispersant called Corexit used by BP to “clean up” the spill, mixed instead with the oil to become a “chemical cocktail” 52 times more toxic than the oil by itself. The toxic brew led to a massive die-off of microscopic aquatic animals that form a large part of the Gulf food chain. The impact on wildlife is incalculable. There is some evidence that BP’s “capped” undersea oil well continues to leak crude into the Gulf.

When making the Nov. 15th admission of guilt, Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP, said the oil company took “responsibility for our actions”, and that “since the spill, we have worked hard to rebuild confidence in the company”. To that reprehensible task, it appears that LACMA’s Michael Govan continues to lend his complete and unconditional support.

LACMA’s Levitated Mass at a Rock-Bottom Price!

Not long ago, while taking one of my periodic trips to the high desert country of California, I happened upon a colossal boulder straddling a stony crevasse. Walking through the gravel-strewn gulch directly beneath the huge rounded mass of rock, I recognized the great boulder as the answer to all my dreams of becoming a postmodern “land artist”.

As it turned out, the gigantic rock was located on private property, and after a friendly talk with the supportive landowner I easily secured rights to the rocky colossus; it remains in storage at its secret undisclosed desert location. I hope to sell my giant rock to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), but first, a little background on the story.

[The artist with his "Alleviated Masses" 100-ton boulder at a secret desert location storage area. Photograph by Jeannine Thorpe © ]

The artist Mark Vallen with his "Alleviated Masses" 100-ton boulder at a secret desert location storage area. Photograph by Jeannine Thorpe ©

If you have been hiding beneath a large rock you might be excused for not knowing that LACMA is spending around $10 million dollars to install a gigantic boulder near the museum’s Resnick Pavilion rear entrance. LACMA is constructing a 15-foot deep, 456-foot-long cement-lined channel over which a 340-ton, 21-foot high granite boulder will be placed. The “conceptual” art piece dreamt up by Michael Heizer will allow people to walk through the trench to see the boulder appear as if it were levitating - hence the title of the work, “Levitated Mass“.

Instead of paying $10 million for Michael Heizer’s 340-ton granite boulder, LACMA can purchase my 100-ton, 10-foot high boulder, titled “Alleviated Masses“, for the amazing low price of only $1 million - that is an incredible savings of $9 million dollars! With such a sweeping reduction in expenditure LACMA can take the amount left over to help create a critically needed first-rate arts curriculum for Los Angeles school children, put into action an expanded artist residency program, and have enough left over for the purchase of artworks from contemporary artists having a hard time due to the economic downturn.

Mr. Heizer’s rock sits in a Riverside, California quarry, swathed in protective plastic and mounted atop a specially constructed 196-wheel transport vehicle. It has waited for bureaucrats and lawyers from several municipalities to give permission for the rock to be moved; a tremendously expensive and hazardous project, for you see, the 340-ton behemoth will tie up traffic and close streets in 22 cities. It will traverse a 105-mile route at eight miles an hour before it reaches its trench at LACMA. By comparison transporting my mere 100-ton rock will be a fantastically simple matter: street closures and traffic jams will be avoided; money and resources will be saved by doing away with bureaucratic red tape; and with the price of gasoline nearing $5 per gallon the savings in fuel expenses alone will be substantial.

LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, told the L.A. Times that the rock in Mr. Heizer’s installation is “ultramodern because it’s self-referential and it’s about the viewer’s experience - it doesn’t represent some god, yet it has the timeless, ancient overtones of cultures that moved monoliths, like the Egyptians, Syrians and Olmecs.”

My boulder may very well be smaller than the $10 million dollar rock used by Mr. Heizer, but I am sure everyone will agree it is no less profound. It is undoubtedly one of the most ultramodern boulders to be discovered anywhere in the world today. With a price tag of only $1 million, my rock does not come complete with overtones of the ancient Egyptians and Syrians, but for the price its near perfect spherical form is nevertheless highly evocative of ancient Olmec monoliths.

Mr. Govan obviously likes to think big, which is clearly the reason he receives annual compensation of $915,000 - more than twice the salary of a sitting U.S. president ($400,000). Heizer’s Levitated Mass is not the only evidence of Mr. Govan’s grandiose way of thinking. Since 2007 he has worked with the King of Kitsch, Jeff Koons, to hang an actual locomotive from a 161-foot-tall crane to be installed on the LACMA campus. Titled Train, the project will ultimately cost $25 million, but it is currently on hold due to the worldwide crash of the capitalist system.

 Image: Mark Vallen, preliminary sketch for Alleviated Masses, 2012 ©

Preliminary sketch for Alleviated Masses, Mark Vallen 2012 ©

No doubt the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression has prevented Michael Govan from going forward with his Train project, so in the face of widespread unemployment and economic collapse Govan has wisely chosen to persevere with the less costly $10 million boulder.

All the same, perhaps the gargantuan un-carved rock is still a bit steeply-priced given the shaky economic situation; I humbly suggest that LACMA and Mr. Govan seriously consider purchasing my slightly scaled-down, easy on the pocket, land art installation - Alleviated Masses.

I enthusiastically await Mr. Govan’s inquiries, and sincerely hope my 100-ton boulder will soon have a new home at LACMA.

An end to oil company sponsorship of the arts

In marking the one year anniversary of the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I signed a letter of protest along with 165 other arts professionals and activists that appeared in the Guardian on April 20, 2011. Titled Tate should end its relationship with BP, the letter calls on the Tate Gallery of London “to demonstrate its commitment to a sustainable future by ending its sponsorship relationship with BP.”

The letter reads in part:

“In the year since their catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP have massively ramped up their investment in controversial tar sands extraction in Canada, have shown to be a key backer of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and have attempted to commence drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. While BP continues to jeopardize ecosystems, communities and the climate by the reckless pursuit of ‘frontier’ oil, cultural institutions like Tate damage their reputation by continuing to be associated with such a destructive corporation.”

Signatories to the letter include the likes of writer and art critic Lucy R. Lippard, painter John Keane, artist and Stuckist co-founder Charles Thomson, artist Billy Childish, and many others. Anti-corporate globalization activist and author of The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, was also a signatory.

While directed at the Tate, the Guardian letter by implication calls upon all art institutions to end their partnerships with BP specifically and with oil companies in general. I first began writing about the relationship between BP and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2007. The Director of LACMA, Michael Govan, had just accepted a $25 million “gift” from BP, monies the museum would use in part to build a new entry gate, the ill-named “BP Grand Entrance”. That first muckraking article was followed by a multitude of other commentaries and critical essays that further exposed the saga of BP and LACMA; by the look of things this current post will not be my last entry on the matter.

Since the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico exactly one year ago, much has been learned about the oil company’s affairs. PLATFORM brought to light the oil giant’s close relationship with former dictator of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, now under investigation for ordering the murder of hundreds of protestors during the three-week long pro-democracy uprising that toppled his regime. Last February I wrote about the collaboration between BP and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi - a friendly and quite lucrative business relationship that culminated in a deal worth billions. On April 16, 2011, Al Jazeera published an in-depth report by independent U.S. journalist Dahr Jamail. His BP anniversary: Toxicity, suffering and death is about as excoriating an account of corporate and government irresponsibility likely to be found.

On April 19, 2011, The Independent published Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq, a timely report that verifies the U.K. government was holding meetings with BP, Shell and BG (British Gas), on “post regime change” opportunities for oil exploitation - a year before the war on Iraq began. Minutes from one Nov. 2002 government meeting with BP noted; “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.” At another meeting held in Oct. 2002, the government’s Foreign Office Middle East director noted, “Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in Iraq for the sake of their long-term future. We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq.” Indeed, after the war, BP was awarded 20-year contracts on some of the largest of Iraq’s oil fields containing upwards of 60 billion barrels of oil.

Here the reader should be reminded that in a 2007 interview in the Los Angeles Times, LACMA Director Michael Govan offered a truly laughable justification for taking BP’s millions - he cited the oil giant’s “commitment to sustainable energy.” Since then Mr. Govan has fallen silent regarding the matter of BP sponsorship of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. One must ask why in all these years the Los Angeles Times has published only a single article that questions the wisdom of LACMA taking money from BP. Art critic Christopher Knight offered a mild rebuke of Govan in his May 18, 2010 article, BP Grand Entrance at LACMA looking not-quite-so-grand, but the article was hardly an in-depth critique that offered solid details on BP’s terrible record.

A protestor from the U.K. activist group, Liberate Tate, stages an intervention titled "Human Cost" at the Tate Britain on Wednesday April 20, 2011. Photo: anonymous.

A protestor from the U.K. activist group, Liberate Tate, stages an intervention titled "Human Cost" at the Tate Britain on April 20, 2011. Photo: anonymous.

Also occurring on the one year anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, artists from the U.K. activist group, Liberate Tate, staged an intervention they titled “Human Cost” at the Tate Britain.

On Wednesday April 20, 2011, a number of silent figures peacefully entered Duveens Hall of the Tate where the exhibit Single Form: The Body in Sculpture from Rodin to Hepworth is currently on display; the exhibit is part of a series of “BP British Art Displays” staged throughout the Tate.

A nude member of the Liberate Tate group assumed a fetal position on the floor in the middle of the room, while veiled comrades dressed in black poured what appeared to be oil over him from containers emblazoned with BP logos (the substance was actually ground charcoal and sunflower oil).

The motionless naked man, slick with viscous black goo, looked as if he were trapped in the globs of crude oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico by BP exactly one year ago. Eventually museum security directed  museum goers out of the room, placing a screen around the area to hide the action from public view. In due course the protestors left the museum and a clean-up crew dealt with the aftermath. To my knowledge there were no arrests. Photographs of the entire happening can be viewed here. A video produced by “You and I Films” documenting the “Human Cost” intervention can be viewed here. England’s Channel 4 also broadcast coverage of the event.

Sandra Paige, a participant in the intervention/performance, said the following about her group’s action; “It’s astonishing that Nick Serota and other Tate executives can be so blind to the horrific social and environmental impacts that BP is responsible for around the world. From the destruction of fisher folks’ livelihoods in the Gulf of Mexico, to the indigenous communities in Canada fearing for their very survival – the human cost of BP’s oil extraction is staggering.”

Terry Taylor of the Liberate Tate group said of the April 20 intervention; “Many important cultural institutions have been the victim of the government’s cuts in arts funding recently. The fact that many organizations will be actively looking for new funding means that the debate around the ethics of corporate sponsorship is more important than ever. Oil companies like BP are responsible for environmental and social controversy all over the world, and we can’t let their sponsorship of institutions like Tate detract from that fact.”

Flash mob "Sleep-In" protestors occupying the Tate Modern on Sunday, April 17, 2011. Screen-shot from the video shot by "You and I Films".

Flash mob "Sleep-In" protestors occupying the Tate Modern on April 17, 2011. Screen-shot from the video shot by "You and I Films".

April 20 was the culmination of a BP Week Of Action called by U.K. groups Liberate Tate, Art Not Oil, Climate Camp London, UK Tar Sands Network, Climate Rush, Indigenous Environmental Network, and London Rising Tide. Under the slogan of “BP and culture: time to break it off”, the groups held a number of public campaigns, the most amusing of which was an April 17 mass flash mob occupation and sleep-in at the Tate Modern, where some 100 protestors with BP-branded blankets, pillows, pajamas, teddy bears, and alarm clocks held a sleep-in among the art works. A video produced by “You and I Films” documenting the Great BP Sponsored Tate Modern Sleep In can be viewed on YouTube.

"Sleep-In" protestor at the Tate Modern - Sunday, April 17, 2011. Screen-shot from the video shot by "You and I Films".

"Sleep-In" protestor at the Tate Modern - Sunday, April 17, 2011. Screen-shot from the video shot by "You and I Films".

Gallery visitors were told that BP sponsorship of the arts was “sleep walking us into climate crisis” and “BP’s relationship with this gallery is one of the ways that BP buys our acceptance - it tries to distract us from the crimes against people, from the crimes against the environment, that they are currently conducting around the world. We are here because we believe that sponsorship is part of the massive PR offensive that BP is engaged in all the time.”

In reporting on the April 20 “Human Cost” intervention at Tate Britain, Channel 4’s Matthew Cain said the following; “An over-reliance on corporate funding of any description can lead to a climate of creative caution and conservatism, and at worst, fear.  There’s evidence of this in the US but, although our model of arts funding is slowly moving closer to the American model, so far there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it here.”

Matthew’s comments are certainly stinging, and it pains me that here in the United States - where BP virtually destroyed the Gulf of Mexico - there are no mass protests marking the one year anniversary of America’s largest ecological disaster. This makes the signing of the Guardian protest letter by American artists that much more noteworthy. I am proud to stand with all those calling for an end to oil company sponsorship of the arts. Hopefully the April 20th actions in the UK will be an inspiring preamble to similar events in the United States.

Libya, BP, & LACMA

Map of Libya showing oil fields under exploration by BP. Graphic from the BP website.

Map of Libya showing oil fields under exploration by BP. The oil giant struck a $900 million deal with Gaddafi's Libya in 2007. Illustration/BP.

The regime of Muammar Gaddafi is fighting to crush a popular uprising that has taken control over much of Libya; it appears the Gaddafi government rules only in the capital of Tripoli.

As of this writing it is alleged that some 1,000 Libyans have been killed by Gaddafi’s soldiers who have used tanks, aircraft, and mercenary troops in their attempt to quash the rebellion.

But this article is not about the violence now sweeping the North African country, nor is it about the reign of Gaddafi, rather, it is about those who have helped sustain him. As world leaders and the international press rush to condemn Gaddafi, few mention the support his government has received from Western oil companies since 2004, when the U.S. and the United Kingdom lifted commercial sanctions against Libya. One oil giant that invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya was BP (British Petroleum).

In May of 2007, BP signed an agreement with Libya worth $900 million. The deal was signed in Sirt, Libya, by BP’s then chief executive Tony Hayward and the chairman of the National Oil Company of Libya, Shokri Ghanem. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, Tony Blair, attended the signing. The official BP web site published a report detailing the agreement, even publishing a special online edition with the unintended prescient title of “Libya Rising.” A jubilant Tony Haywood would utter the following at the signing, words that should haunt BP until the end of time:

“We are delighted to be working with the National Oil Company of Libya to develop their natural resources for domestic and international markets. Our agreement is the start of an enduring, long-term and mutually beneficial partnership with Libya. With its potentially large resources of gas, favourable geographic location and improving investment climate, Libya has an enormous opportunity to be a source of cleaner energy for the world. This is a welcome return to the country for BP after more than 30 years and represents a significant opportunity for both BP and Libya to deliver our long term growth aspirations. It is BP’s single biggest exploration commitment. The agreement reached today is a great success for Libya, the NOC and also for BP.”

The 2007 deal allows BP to explore for oil and natural gas, offshore as well as onshore, giving the company access to three of Libya’s most promising but unexplored tracts - one area alone is the size of Kuwait. According to the agreement, BP will invest a minimum of $2 billion in Libya in the coming years, with expectations of boosting the nation’s oil production from the current 1.8 million barrels a day, to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2020.

As part of its pact with the Gaddafi regime, BP is preparing to sink an oil well in the Gulf of Sidra, around 125 miles from the coastal city of Benghazi. Despite BP’s liability for the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster - the biggest environmental accident in world history - BP is slated to begin drilling in the Gulf of Sidra by June 2011. The undersea well will be drilled into the seabed at a depth of 1700 meters, making the Sidra well 200 meters deeper than the blown-out Gulf of Mexico well. It was the depth of the Deepwater Horizon well that made it next to impossible to repair or close, leading to hundreds of millions of gallons of crude gushing into the ocean. One can only imagine the environmental repercussions to the Mediterranean Sea if a comparable accident where to take place at BP’s Gulf of Sidra well.

BP plans to build at least five deep water drilling platforms in the Gulf of Sidra. In August of 2010, Italy’s environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, expressed opposition to BP’s drilling in the Mediterranean, saying “A moratorium could be a right approach for potentially dangerous drilling.” The chairman of the Italian Senate’s environment commission, Antonio D’Alli, said he was “very worried” about BP’s plans. Mr. D’Alì said, “The problem is not BP or Libya. The sea has no boundaries and when accidents happen, in national or international waters, effects are felt in the whole Mediterranean. Considering it is already one of the most oil-polluted seas in the world, the impact of a major spill could be irreversible.”

Archaeologists and historians are fearful of what might happen to Libya’s archaeological treasures if a major accident takes place at the Sidra well. Innumerable ships have sunk in the Gulf of Sidra over millennia, and the shipwrecks would suffer incalculable damage in the event of a spill. The ancient city sites that dot the coastline of the Gulf would also be devastated by such a spill; the city of Apollonia being a prime example. Founded in the 7th century by Greeks, Apollonia became a major Roman city, and its ruins are some of the most well-preserved examples of Roman architecture to be found anywhere in the world. Most of the city has not been excavated, and the site extends right into the ocean, with the larger part of it laying beneath the sea as a result of an earthquake in 365 AD. In the event of a spill, crude oil would accumulate on the seafloor, covering ancient artifacts and underwater city ruins. Oily waves washing-up onshore would seep into the porous stone and be impossible to clean off.

BP is not the only foreign oil company in Libya; U.S. corporations like Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, Conoco Phillips, Marathon Oil, Hess Corp., and Halliburton all run profitable operations there. European nations are also well represented by Eni SpA (Italy: the largest foreign producer), Total S.A. (France: one of the six largest oil companies in the world), OMV AG (Austria), Repsol YPF SA (Spain’s largest oil company), Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands), Statoil (Netherlands), BG Group (U.K.), Wintershall (Germany). China’s largest oil producer, CNPC, also drill for oil in Libya. Most if not all foreign companies are shutting down their Libyan operations for the moment. The chief executive for Eni said that his company will cut production “because of difficulty loading the tankers to export the oil,” inconvenient difficulties like Gaddafi’s army mowing down the Libyan people with machine gun fire.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

The plans BP had to exploit Libyan oil have of course been interrupted by the Libyan people’s revolution, part of the wave of pro-democracy movements sweeping across the Arab world.

BP made the decision to “suspend” oil exploration in Libya on Feb. 21., and company spokesman David Nicholas said that all non-essential staff would be evacuated from the Libyan desert. The company has around 140 staff in Libya, most of which are Libyans. BP’s 40 expatriate personnel have been evacuated.

BP chief executive Bob Dudley would only say that “We have some people there. Dependents have left the country but we remain committed to doing business there.” There were no statements concerning the deplorable violence engulfing the nation, nor comments regarding the safety and welfare of the Libyan people, just an affirmation of wanting to conduct “business”.

I have been writing about the relationship the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) maintains with BP since March 14, 2007, when it was first announced the museum accepted $25 million dollars from the multinational oil company. It would only be two months later that BP would arrange its May 2007 deal with Muammar Gaddafi. LACMA used BP’s millions to renovate and expand its campus, and the museum constructed a new entry gate and pavilion it christened, the “BP Grand Entrance.”

At the time LACMA’s Director Michael Goven billed BP as a “green” company, saying: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” One does not need to imagine what the Gaddafi regime did with the initial $900 million BP bestowed upon it, or if by chance it survives, what it would do with the billions BP has agreed to invest in Libya. As far as having a “commitment to sustainable energy,” just think of BP’s projected goal of raising Libyan crude output to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2020.

Tony Hayward, the bungling multi-millionaire former CEO of BP, has so far been remembered for complaining about the disruption the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster had on his personal life, saying at the time, “I would like my life back.” With Colonel Gaddafi presently drowning Libya in blood, Haywood and BP should instead be remembered for cutting a major oil and gas deal with Gaddafi - and gloating about it.

Art Contest: BP Logo Redesign

BP: Broken Promises – Logo design submitted by Foye. 2010. The artist had the following to say about the design, "'Back to Black' is a term aimed at maximum brand damage – BP have spent hundreds of millions re-branding themselves as the good green oil company. The helios in this image is fading, petals falling to the ground – creating a sense of behind the brand image."

BP: Broken Promises – Logo design by Foye. 2010. The artist said the following about the design, "'Back to Black' is a term aimed at maximum brand damage – BP have spent hundreds of millions re-branding themselves as the good green oil company. The helios in this image is fading, petals falling to the ground – creating a sense of behind the brand image."

As BP’s broken underwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico continues to gush over 100,000 barrels of oil per day into the fragile ecosystem, and as sheets of the thick sticky crude start to fill the delicate marsh lands of the Mississippi Delta – Greenpeace UK has launched an art competition to redesign the BP corporate logo.

The contest is open to professional and non-professional artists from around the world. Greenpeace UK says that the current corporate logo needs “a makeover to better suit a company that invests in tar sands and other unconventional oil sources like deep water oil,” and that a redesigned logo should better reflect BP’s “dirty business.”

Starting on May 20, 2010, the design contest will run for six weeks, ending on June 28, 2010. The environmental group says the winning logo design will be “used by us in innovative and exciting ways as part of our international campaign against the oil company,” and will be placed in high profile locations, as well as featured in newspaper and magazine advertisements. Entries will be judged by a panel of artists from the design and marketing professions, whose identities will be revealed as the competition draws to a close.

Submitted artworks can be created in any media, the only criteria being that the re-worked logo adheres to the concept of exposing BP, and that the logo is easy to comprehend and reproduce. Non-professional artists and students are encouraged to submit their ideas and concepts, as Greenpeace UK will provide such a contest winner “a day with a top graphic designer to transform your idea into a final product.”

BP: Bitumen Pilferers – Anonymous. 2010. The designer turned BP’s radiant green sunflower icon into a dead flower dripping with oil. Bitumen of course is the hydrocarbon obtained by the distillation of petroleum or coal; the substance commonly being used as a component of tar and asphalt.

BP: Bitumen Pilferers – Anonymous. 2010. The designer turned BP’s green sunflower icon into a dead flower dripping with oil. Bitumen of course is the hydrocarbon obtained by distilling petroleum or coal; the substance is commonly used as a component of tar and asphalt.

John Sauven, the Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, said the following regarding the launch of the logo competition; “BP’s famous green logo is there to distract us from what this company really stands for. This company has chosen to extract the last drops of oil from deep sea wells and the tar sands of Canada, instead of developing the clean technologies that can actually help beat climate change. That’s why we’re calling in the experts. We’re hoping that the design community and the public will help us come up with a logo that will actually reflect BP’s obsession with dirty oil. This is a competition with a difference, because we’re planning to use the winning entry all over Britain in a high profile Greenpeace campaign that the company will find impossible to spin.”

Complete details on the competition and how to submit an entry, are available on the Greenpeace website, at: www.greenpeace.org.uk

It should be noted that Greenpeace UK launched the design competition by simultaneously deploying trained climbers to scale the front entrance of BP’s London headquarters, where the Greenpeace activists replaced BP’s large corporate flag with a redesigned banner of their own.

Greenpeace UK released the following statement to the public regarding the event; “Our climbers have scaled the front of BP’s London HQ to present them with a logo that we think might suit them a little better. Our logo has been ‘improved’ with the addition of a bit of oil and a tagline that reads ‘British polluters.’ It’s an OK effort, but we’re sure you can do much better. So today we’re launching a competition to get you to redesign BP’s logo to suit a company that’s investing in unconventional oil like the Canadian tar sands.”

Accelerated Decay – Logo design submitted by Frank. 2010. The artist had the following to say about his design, "My approach shows both the tarnishing of the BP brand itself and the accelerated decay certain practices of it may cause the globe. While to many the damage may seem as though it's minimal or not impacting them, the ultimate destination is the witherment of life."

Accelerated Decay – Logo design submitted by Frank. 2010. The artist said the following about his design, "My approach shows both the tarnishing of the BP brand itself and the accelerated decay certain practices of it may cause the globe. While to many the damage may seem as though it's minimal or not impacting them, the ultimate destination is the witherment of life."

One of the Greenpeace climbers, Ben Stewart, made the following statement;

“The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be traced back to decisions made in this building. Under Tony Hayward’s leadership (the company’s chief executive) BP has taken huge risks to pump oil from ever more remote places, while slashing investment in the clean energy projects that could actually help reduce our dependence on oil and beat climate change.

BP’s bright green logo is a pathetic attempt to distract our attention from the reality of what this company is doing, both in the Gulf of Mexico but also in places like the tar sands of Canada. Tony Hayward’s reckless approach will cause more disasters unless action is taken to stop him.”

On a related note, at last someone aside from me has bothered to mention the financial relationship between BP and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which I have been writing about in great detail since March 2007.

In his brief May 18, 2010 article, BP Grand Entrance at LACMA looking not-quite-so-grand, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight noted the ongoing “epic environmental tragedy” caused in the Gulf by BP, and playfully suggested that “LACMA might want to think about commissioning a work of art that would be apt for the BP Grand Entrance.”

An architectural design for a "BP Grand Entrance" at LACMA more in keeping with the oil company’s terrible record of environmental destruction. First proposed by this writer in October 2007.

An architectural design for a "BP Grand Entrance" at LACMA more in keeping with the oil company’s terrible record of environmental destruction. First proposed by this writer in October 2007.

Of course, in October of 2007 I had proposed just such an artwork in my article, Another Oil Slick at LACMA, which detailed BP having to “pay a whopping $373 million in an out of court settlement designed to stop U.S. Justice Department criminal indictments against the global energy giant’s law-breaking in the United States.” In that piece I proposed an architectural design (shown at right) for a “BP Grand Entrance” at LACMA more in keeping with the oil company’s terrible record of environmental destruction.

But Knight’s article also mentioned that BP funded the creation of an exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which has officially been dubbed, the “BP Sea Otter Habitat.” Now that is a concept difficult to imagine.

Four years ago BP gave a $1 million “donation” to the Aquarium of the Pacific, which used the petro dollars to build its new BP Sea Otter Habitat, an attraction that “transports visitors to California’s Central Coast,” providing a recreation of a rocky coastline where visitors can “peer underwater and discover the busy world of sea otters as they swim and interact amongst kelp and fish.” The BP Sea Otter Habitat presents an accurate peek at the pristine environment of California’s Central Coast, with its crystalline waters and giant kelp beds filled with mollusks, crustaceans, and innumerable fish. As a former scuba diver, that ecosystem is well familiar to me, and it has long been a source of constant inspiration and awe. But that unspoiled natural beauty is a far cry from the “Dead Zone” now being created in the Gulf of Mexico by BP.

The Louisiana governor's office released this aerial photograph showing thick streams of heavy crude oil as it penetrates the marsh lands of the Louisiana coastline at the Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal toured the Mississippi Delta by boat on Wednesday, May 19,saying of the BP spill; "This is serious - this is the heavy oil that everyone has been fearing. It is hear now. This is one of the oldest wildlife mangagement areas here in Louisiana, and now it is covered in oil."

The Louisiana governor's office released this aerial photograph showing thick streams of heavy crude oil as it penetrates the marsh lands of the Louisiana coastline at the Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal toured the Mississippi Delta by boat on Wednesday, May 19, saying of the BP spill; "This is serious - this is the heavy oil that everyone has been fearing. It is here now. This is one of the oldest wildlife mangagement areas here in Louisiana, and now it is covered in oil."

While sea otters do not live in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says that 600 animal species are directly imperiled by BP’s ongoing ecological disaster; 445 species of fish, 45 mammals, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 134 bird species.

On May 20, biologists of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge found the first oil covered brown pelican to have died from exposure to BP’s massive oil spill – and there are some 4,500 pelicans nesting at the refuge; which brings me back to the BP Sea Otter Habitat at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

To launch its new BP exhibit, the Aquarium of the Pacific announced its “Sea Otter Poetry Contest.” Commencing May 20, 2010, and running until August 15, 2010, contestants worldwide are being asked to submit a poem no longer than 300 words on the theme of sea otters. Poems are to be judged in two categories: those penned by writers’ ages 13 through 20, and those written by authors over 21. All entries must be submitted digitally or by mail, by midnight Aug. 15, 2010. First Prize winners will have their works published in the Aquarium’s magazine and on the Aquarium’s website, plus assorted prizes for Second and Third Prize winners. The Aquarium of the Pacific will announce the winners on October 27, 2010. Details on entering the BP sponsored Poetry Contest can be found on the Aquarium’s website.

Poetry has always provided a means to touch the heart as well as the intellect, and many a poet has dedicated verse and rhyme to excoriate the evils of the day, using the evocative language of poetry as social protest – the BP sponsored Aquarium of the Pacific’s Sea Otter Poetry Contest presents no less an opportunity. I believe that every lover of the written word should submit a poem to this contest, as it is a creative way to denounce BP’s role in destroying our planet, as well as expressing our vision of humanity truly at peace with the natural world.

Though sea otters do not live in the Gulf of Mexico, creative writers will no doubt be able to pen verse that connects the aquatic mammal with the crimes against nature being committed by BP. For those who wish to submit a poem of outrage to the Sea Otter Poetry Contest, but hesitate to do so out of concern that the BP sponsored Aquarium will simply ignore the entry, simply “CC” an e-mail copy of your poem to Art For A Change – where I will post the best submissions on October 27, 2010, the very day the winners of the BP sponsored Poetry Contest are announced by the Aquarium of the Pacific.

BP’s Oil Slick: LACMA Woes

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

If you think the eerie green photograph shown at left is just another postmodern artwork to be found in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), then you are not too far off the mark. While the weird image was certainly not conjured up by one of today’s fashionable art stars, it is in a manner of speaking, one of LACMA’s most recent acquisitions, and it has been supplied by one of the museum’s leading benefactors.

In March of 2007, LACMA’s Director Michael Govan struck a deal with oil giant BP (British Petroleum). Govan agreed to accept a $25 million “donation” from BP that would help in the renovation of the museum, and in return the entry way on LACMA’s newly expanded campus would be christened, “The BP Grand Entrance.” At the time Govan touted BP as a “green” company, telling the Los Angeles Times that he accepted the oil company’s money because: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy (….) We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Since that March 2007 deal I have unremittingly covered the oily relationship between LACMA and BP – and the story only continues to worsen. The above photograph is not part of LACMA’s collection, though it could be included in an exhibit that explores just exactly what a “commitment to sustainable energy” means to the museum and its director. In actuality the photo was taken by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it shows a broken underwater oil pipe that is presently spewing over 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico per day. That particular oil drilling operation gone awry is run by none other than LACMA’s major patron, British Petroleum. LACMA has not acquired a work of art, but the stain of collaborating with one of the planet’s most rapacious polluters.

You may have heard about the tragic fire and explosion on the huge Deepwater Horizon oil rig located in the Gulf of Mexico, if not, ask Michael Govan about it. The oil rig was owned and operated by the Swiss based firm Transocean; however, its operations were under lease to British Petroleum. Transocean was drilling an exploration well for BP when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank on April 26, 2010 – killing eleven workers. The capsized rig, with a platform larger than a football field, broke away from the pipe that connected it to the oil well 5,000 feet below the ocean surface; the broken underwater drilling infrastructure is now pouring out 1,000 barrels of crude oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of this writing, the growing oil slick covers well over 3,360 square miles of ocean, and there are fears the massive slick will affect the coastal communities of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

This photo from the US Coast Guard shows part of the growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. The photo was taken soon after the April 22 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leased and run by BP. Photo - AFP/USCG/Elizabeth Bordelon.

This photo from the US Coast Guard shows part of the growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. The photo was taken soon after the April 22 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leased and run by BP. Photo - AFP/USCG/Elizabeth Bordelon.

BP’s enormous oil slick, less than 36 miles from the Louisiana coast, is directly threatening the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and the Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Located off the coast of Louisiana, Breton Refuge is the second oldest wildlife refugee in the U.S. Founded in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is accessible only by boat and it provides habitat and colonies for over twenty-three species of seabirds and shorebirds. Delta Refuge is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Established in 1934, its 49,000 acres provides habitat to huge numbers of fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds. If the oil slick were to reach these nature reserves, the result would be a catastrophe of unparalleled dimension. As it is, BP’s oil slick will cause tremendous devastation to the fragile marine ecosystem found in the Gulf of Mexico, and untold numbers of fish, birds, mammals, and crustaceans that live in the Gulf will die.

The Gulf of Mexico oil slick confirms BP actually stands for “Big Profits” and not “Beyond Petroleum.” On April 27, as the U.S. Coast Guard struggled to contain the ecological disaster in the Gulf, BP posted a huge surge in its earnings – a phenomenal increase in profits from last year’s $2.39 billion to this year’s $6.08 billion. Now that BP is glutted with oil and flush with cash, perhaps LACMA’s Michael Govan can ask them for another “donation.” I am sure BP could use an excellent public relations gimmick right about now, so I would like to suggest that LACMA construct “The Grand Deepwater Horizon Exit Gate” as part of their new BP financed campus.

While Govan and BP run for political cover in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, they will not be alone in doing so. Just days after millions of people in the U.S. celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, what is left of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is gushing crude into the Gulf in a slick so massive it is larger than the state of Rhode Island. NASA has photographed the gigantic slick from space. And what is the response from President Obama, especially since he has announced a plan to open over 500,000 square miles of U.S. coastal waters to oil drilling – including a vast area in the Gulf of Mexico that has never before been drilled? On April 23 President Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs alleged there is no reason to give up plans to expand offshore oil drilling, declaring; “In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last.” Perhaps when Michael Govan leaves LACMA in disgrace, he can get a job in the Obama administration.

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 On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition (www.greenpeace.org.uk) to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition (www.greenpeace.org.uk) to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

Updates, May 20 through 29, 2010: On Saturday, May 29, the Associated Press reported that BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles admitted that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the oil leak was a complete failure. Suttles commented, “This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.”

On May 27, national and international media, taking information from BP and the Obama administration’s U.S. Coast Guard, reported that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the torrent of oil from gushing into the ocean was a “success” and that “industry and government engineers had pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well.”

Yahoo News and CBS News both reported that at President Obama’s May 28th press conference on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, an event meant to show the president was “in control” of response efforts, BP bused in hundreds of temporary workers to clean-up oil off the beach. After Obama left the scene, BP dismissed the workers.

May 27, national and international media report the U.S. government’s pronouncement that the BP catastrophe is the worst eco-disaster in U.S. history – with U.S. Geological Survey scientists calculating that the broken BP pipeline is spewing more than one million gallons of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico, the gusher will no doubt become the worst eco-disaster in world history. Starting on May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition to redesign the BP corporate logo.

Updates, May 15, 2010: The U.K. Telegraph reported that President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency gave BP permission to use massive amounts of a chemical dispersant underwater, despite there being no scientific knowledge regarding the ecological dangers posed by such a huge application of the toxic chemical known as “Corexit.” The New York Times reported that to date, BP has applied more than 400,000 gallons of Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico, and it has 805,000 gallons of the chemical on order. The New York Times also revealed that “of the 18 dispersants whose use EPA has approved, 12 were found to be more effective” than Corexit. The toxicity of the 12 alternatives was in some cases “10 or 20 times less” than Corexit. Nalco manufactures Corexit, and that company’s current leadership includes executives from BP and Exxon - LACMA and its director Michael Govan continue to remain silent regarding their ongoing financial relationship to BP.

UPDATES, May 5 through 14, 2010: A National Day of Protest against BP was called for May 12, 2010, with protests held in U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York City - Both NPR and the New York Times have reported that scientists are saying the BP broken rig is spilling, not 5,000 barrels a day, but up to 100,000 barrels a dayPolitico.com reported that President Obama has “received a total of $77,051″ from BP over the last 20 years, making him “the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money.” -  McClatchy Newspapers reports that “Since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico.”

[ Friends of the Earth are asking people to sign their online petition calling for President Obama to abandon his plans for expanded offshore oil drilling. ]

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.