When Gabriel Liston painted the Greenpeace protesters dangling from the St. Johns Bridge on July 29, he made art history and outmatched all the photographs of the event.
Painting en plein air from a vantage point on North Edison Street, slightly south of the bridge, Liston captured the bridge looking north with a foreground that's a riot of plants and flowers. One bridge tower rises out of the bushes, and the deck drives horizontally through the picture plane, drawing the eye to the opposite tower and the forest beyond. Above the deck, trees fade into the distance and the vertical towers counterbalance each other on both sides, making a perfect frame for the protesters dangling in the air below.
While the actual banners were yellow and red—Shell Oil Company's colors—Liston took some artistic license with the flags hanging above the protesters and added pink to the mix. At first glance, these swatches of color appear to be part of the foliage on the opposite bank, but the loose brushstrokes quickly become banners as you keep looking. The danglers themselves are smaller blots of color just below. By adding pink and mimicking the colors in the foreground flowers, Liston conflates the protesters with the nature they're fighting for.
It's not every day a plein-air landscape achieves the status of history painting, but it's fitting that this moment caught an environmental protest described as "artful activism," a term coined by political activist Bill Moyer, with red and yellow banners that looked like an art installation. The protesters' unfurled banners brought to mind works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, artists known for surrounding buildings, trees, rivers and whole islands with fabric.
Liston's plein-air painting is equally as ethereal, ephemeral and environmentally conscious as Greenpeace's actions on the St. Johns Bridge. And Liston proved equally dedicated to the protesters' cause—From N Edison, St. Johns was sold to a private buyer for an undisclosed sum, with the proceeds donated to Greenpeace.
SEE IT: From N Edison, St. Johns is on view at Froelick Gallery, 714 NW Davis St., through Aug. 29.