“Copyright is for losers,” the artist known as Banksy has said.
So it’s no surprise that the exhibit “Banksyland,” opening April 15 in Portland’s inner Southeast industrial district, is not authorized by Banksy.
Which doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate. The show, which premieres in the Rose City before moving on to Honolulu, Seattle and other cities, has dozens of authenticated, signed works by the semi-anonymous British street artist, states the art collective One Thousand Ways, which organized the exhibition.
These include the well-known “Girl with Balloon,” “Rage, the Flower Thrower” and “Smiling Copper,” as well as various salvaged graffiti works.
The exhibit also features “never-before-seen installations examining the mystique and cultural impact of Banksy.”
That mystique, of course, arguably has more to do with the artist’s success than the art.
Banksy’s official anonymity — the artist is almost certainly Bristol-born Robin Gunningham, according to a 2016 academic investigation that used geographic profiling — and his look-at-me stunts have fueled the Banksy brand for years.
Early in the artist’s career, the stunts included sneaking his works into prestigious museums. More recently, there was the “Balloon Girl” painting that, right after selling at auction for $1.4 million, shredded itself. (“Sotheby’s had been ‘Banksy-ed,’” The New York Times wrote.)
The cultural impact is a trickier question.
Banksy’s art is pointedly political, arriving on the scene at the same time that large-scale protests against globalization began taking place — such as the street violence that erupted during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. One of Banky’s first public murals to receive widespread attention portrayed a phlegmatic Teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police.
Alex Branczik, senior director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, calls Banksy “a modern-day Voltaire.”
But Banksy critics have argued that, while eye-catching, the artist’s work is typically reductive and reactive, rather than innovative.
The Italian art curator and writer Francesco Bonami has said that “great artists, I believe, invent a language and a grammar. Banksy did not.”
Elle Miller, the curator of “Banksyland,” says this tension in the work — its often-juvenile simplicity combined with uncompromising political stands — is a key reason it resonates, and why this is the perfect time for a touring Banksy exhibition.
“These have been very challenging years here in the US, and we feel that Banksy’s work, while often cynical, is also incredibly hopeful,” Miller said in a statement. “People want to come back into public spaces, to be inspired by art that reflects their values and hopes. That’s what ‘Banksyland’ represents.”
The “Banksyland” exhibition is a non-profit undertaking, with some of the ticket proceeds going to local arts education, Miller points out.
We don’t know what Banksy thinks of this unauthorized attempt to showcase his life’s work and put it into context. He doesn’t communicate with journalists.
But it’s probably safe to assume he’s not particularly enthusiastic about it. Steve Lazarides, his former agent, has said he’s “a total control freak, down to every last detail.”
And despite claiming that copyright is for losers, Banksy has shown he doesn’t really want other people and companies using his work for their own purposes. (In 2018, his company, Pest Control, unsuccessfully tried to stop a greeting-card company for reproducing his work without authorization.)
This much is known for certain: Banksy is a phenomenon. He’s the most famous living artist in the world — and prices reflect that. In 2019, his painting “Devolved Parliament,” depicting chimpanzees thoughtfully debating some important issue in Britain’s hallowed legislative citadel, sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $12.2 million. This work did not self-destruct when the gavel came down.
“Shame I didn’t still own it,” Banksy said on Instagram after the auction.
He added a quote from the late art critic Robert Hughes that lamented the huge prices that are regularly paid for well-known artworks: “Suppose that every worthwhile book in the world cost $1 million — imagine what a catastrophic effect on culture that would have .”
Considering the prices Banksy works now fetch, the “Banksyland” exhibit — stretching out over 25,000 square feet in a large, unassuming Southeast Portland building — will be well-guarded.
“Heists of Banksy’s work are the stuff of legend in the art world,” Miller said, “and we are taking security very seriously.”
“Banksyland” runs April 15-May 8 at 226 SE Madison St.; tickets: $29-$59; banksyland.com/