“Stencil is a metonymic term that defines both the part, the whole, the technique and the result. Cutting is a tool that is also called stenciling. I think the best thing would be to enjoy painting first, before you start to see the cutting.” With these words, we glimpse the artistic ambition carried by Artiste-Ouvrier. This stencil virtuoso, inventor of the double cut, wishes to link since the 90s freedom of creation and meticulousness, precision of the preparatory work and speed of execution. Often inspired by master canvases, his creations carry within them bursts of light, like his splendid cathedrals of Rouen. Finally, Artiste-Ouvrier is also one of those who pass on their knowledge, having founded through the WCA an unofficial school of stencil artists, counting among his “students” future names of the street-art scene such as the duo Jana & JS.
Could you first go back to how you went from writing to painting?
I started writing poetry and theatre at a very young age, winning a national festival with a play called Ivre d’eau, based on Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre. After the Baccalaureate, I pursued short literary studies, being very attached to the rule of the three units dear to classical authors, as well as to cursed poets, even if I found that they were often recovered. I sometimes had the same feeling in painting, especially when faced with posters based on Klimt’s works, which did not do justice to his work and its golden effects that were impossible to reproduce.
I also liked the avant-gardes of the 19th century, which I thought represented the apogee of Western civilization, with the emergence of new schools of thought and a return to the libertine spirit that prevailed at the beginning of the 17th century. After a long aristocratic and elitist period, this era gave everyone the opportunity to think for themselves again.
At the same time, I was interested in modern trends in popular art, such as Pop art. I had taken up Paolo Uccello’s Saint George Slaying the Dragon in the manner of Andy Warhol, reproducing it twenty-five times on a sheet. I was seduced by this possibility of popularizing deep, interesting and referenced things. All these elements pushed me to seek out what my interpretations of such works could be, which immediately aroused reactions in my entourage, starting with the exhibition at the Lavoir Moderne in 1995.
Why did you choose stencil as a means of expression?
Above all, stencil offers an easy solution when you don’t know how to draw. Even if you miss it, it looks like something when you take a work by Moreau or Klimt as a starting point. However, like classic versification, it responds to formal frames and has a real technical dimension. I like this idea of creation under constraint, as applied by Oulipo, Perec or Queneau. When I came back from Ethiopia, my friends encouraged me to start stenciling again, whereas before it was a personal practice, not exposed in the street. I started to apply myself after an architect friend lent me a scalpel and a cutting board. It’s an art that values self-taught learning and the creation of one’s own technique.
As for the name Artiste-Ouvrier, you explain that it comes from a lecture by William Morris and is part of a double logic, mixing Art and know-how.
Just as the words hospital and hotel, work and work have nothing to do with each other, while having the same origin. Cathedrals were built without architects and without plans, by master tailors or sculptors who devoted ten years of their lives to them. They were workmen, but who would dare to say that they were not artists? There was no difference between the two. It was chain work in the 18th century, then its popularisation in the 19th century, that separated the artist drawing with a knife from the workers making the tool. The manufactured object was no longer a knife, but an ugly, breakable and multiple ersatz. This separation of brain and hand was explained by William Morris, a Pre-Raphaelite, at a conference and in a book, The Age of the ersatz.
For my part, I did not want to be a workman in the contemporary sense of the term, nor an artist painting a piano in pink for a million. I wasn’t interested in the current vision of these two figures, even though they represent the most beautiful thing in the world. So I wanted to link these two extremes by calling myself an Artist-Worker, having the freedom of the artist and the professional conscience of the worker. It should not be forgotten that before the Revolution, the aristocracy had privileges, but so did the workers’ guilds: becoming an artist in Molière’s time was a decline when one was born into a family of drapers. Louis XVI himself had a fascination for manual work and was a watchmaker. It was after 1789 that people began to favour middlemen, salesmen and the merchant bourgeoisie. The truth is that these two notions were deliberately destroyed.
Emergence on the stencil scene
One of your first series was called “Fonds de drawers”. What did it refer to?
It expressed the fact that I no longer wanted to write for my drawer but to expose the drawer itself. What’s important here is what is not seen or read. When the Renaissance painters ran out of money, they used to break the bottoms of their drawers, which was not noticed, to paint an ex-voto and sell it to the church so that they could eat. I spent two years painting the first twelve pieces, small typographer’s drawers from the early 20th century.
“It’s what’s not cut out that’s important, like the silence in a score. How does this apply to the Drawer Trays?
I made a portrait whose hair was actually the wood of the support. Only the contours and the light were cut out. I played a lot with this type of effect in this series. This is what I call the spider: if you cut out moonlight, everything that is not cut out will take the shape of a spider. This spider is not figurative, not immediately visible to the naked eye, but it is a presence that you feel. If it is very harmonious, it will give strength to the whole cut.
How has this series influenced your path?
In 2005, I exhibited about a hundred drawers at Section Urbaine, a two-person performance exhibition, where I worked with Paëlla? It was on that occasion that I met Jérôme Mesnager, with whom I did a lot of collaborations afterwards, notably thanks to the Art Bref gallery, which first had the idea of exhibiting us together. We are not reducible to either of us, our styles are perfectly visible and distinct, yet we both offer something different, and that’s what we like.
For Jérôme Mesnager you were the artistic heir of Jean-Pierre Le Boulch.
Jean-Pierre Le Boulch’s work is incredible because he made multilayers that he then glued on canvas. He was a popular artist, in love with painting, who believed that one could appropriate the history of Art to offer it to people who didn’t have these references. In the same way, I think one can have an aesthetic experience without knowing the work one is looking at. Le Boulch had left its mark on Jérôme Mesnager when he was young, and he directly pointed out the link that connected me to Pop art and to this artist I didn’t know, a French Andy Warhol with a particularly beautiful and delicate work.
So you gradually became the link between several generations of stencil artists.
It happened in several stages. I organised an international stencil artist’s meeting in Nogent, inviting a lot of artists to create an erotic fresco sixty-nine metres long. Between the breeding ground of the 80s and the newcomers of 2000, a Parisian stencil scene was beginning to emerge. My work was unintentionally situated at the transition between the punk and vandal stencils of the former and the more sophisticated stencils of the latter: I found myself halfway there, both last of the old and first of the young.
How did you go from multilayer to the invention of double cutting, which allowed you to apply colour more freely by reducing the number of stencils used?
At that time, a stencil required five or six cuts, painted using the multi-layer technique, using one colour per layer. If the stencils were placed in the eye, a slight movement could ruin the whole thing. In the 90s, I worked on two different colours per layer because I wanted to remain anonymous and it was risky to spend too much time on the street. Afterwards, when I wanted to sell them, I spent enough time on the first cut to make a second one. The invention of the double cut is in line with my taste for oriental philosophy, a union of opposites as opposed to dualism. I use two stencils, one for blacks and one for whites, the rest of the colours being applied by hand. This makes it possible to come back to the work several times, because it is easy to wedge two stencils together. It is the stencil for the whites, or “Chinese”, that made me famous, by marking a shadow with the cut light. The result thus obtained is not a negative but a positive image.
You use the stencil as an intermediary and not as an image decision-maker. This shows that your approach is not simply that of a stencil artist.
Stencil is a metonymic term that defines both the part, the whole, the technique and the result. Cutting is a tool that is also called stenciling. For me, the ideal would be to first appreciate painting, before starting to see the matrix. Some people find it graphically more interesting than the painting itself.
For example, I made a cutout of the cathedral of Rouen, with the same point of view as Monet, and I painted about fifteen of them. Sometimes the fifteenth version is the best, which is interesting for popular art. In any case, each work is unique, because the support, my mood or the colors are different. The matrix could be considered as art, but it is only the final result that I consider as a work, or rather as a “work of potential paintings” to use the words of the Oulipo.
How did you apply this time-consuming technique on the street?
I got noticed very quickly for my technique, which is both detailed and fast. The cutting is certainly long, and it takes me weeks to make a miniature, but I can paint in a trashy way with colors that remain very circumscribed. Two opposites meet again here: the meticulousness of the cutting and the explosiveness of the painting. Painting very quickly is ideal for vandal work, which must however be distinguished from “terrain”: indeed, there are those who use the wasteland to make more detailed pieces (terrain) in less visible places, and those who work above all speed (vandal). My technique allows me to work on both approaches and I was able to gain the respect of people from both chapels, stencil and tag, who found that my approach was close to painting.
Where do these rivalries come from?
You have to understand that in the 80s there were still real urban painters in Paris, before stencil artists like Marie Rouffet, painters like Mesnager and Speedy Graphito, or poster artists like Paella? turned the city upside down. When Graffiti finally arrived in France, the tagging phenomenon became so pervasive that even the urban painters of yesteryear got into trouble with the police. That’s also why I didn’t want to go out into the street: I wasn’t part of an urban revolt, I didn’t come from hip-hop culture but rather from techno, and I wasn’t looking for clandestinity or recognition of my signature.
WCA: Foundation of a school
When did you start training other artists?
I was gradually recognised by young people like JS and Alex, who came to me for advice. Around 2005, I just had a small office that served as a studio with a courtyard in Belleville. My technique was priceless, I had spent ten years developing it as an autodidact, but I allowed them to ask me questions for six months about how to cut. At the end of this period, we had sold enough paintings to go to Barcelona for eight days to do vandalism, although we were also invited to do some legal work. JS became a professional with Jana, to whom he passed on the technique. Today they are known internationally.
That’s how the WCA came into being.
WCA stands for Working Class Artists, the first ones I trained. I then initiated other people in Hamburg, who took the name ASA, for Altona Stencil Art, because we worked in my studio in the Altona district. The art scene there was very fragmented, but there were so many of us that we almost doubled the number of people active on the street! ASA has become so important that people now think that this movement has always existed, even though I founded it in 2007.
Back in France, I moved to Normandy, in Caen, where I trained a lot of people, including a graffiti artist, Sane2, who taught me how to handle the bomb better. It was interesting to realize that if originally Stencil and Graffiti are two completely watertight worlds, the reality is actually different. They wanted to take the name SMN for Stencil Made in Normandy, but I ended up stopping those acronyms to group all those who learned double-cutting with me under the WCA label. It’s not a group, people don’t necessarily meet each other even if some have worked together and there have been exhibitions, but they are mostly artists who each have their own style with a technique in common.
How did those you formed evolve?
If with the double cutting we find the idea of constraint of the Oulipo, I did not however make a dogma of it and those who learned with me have the right to use one, or three. In spite of everything, those who continue today and who are in search of the subject and the meaning use this technique, because it is not necessary to have more, and one is rarely enough. Moreover, it allows the development of a multitude of styles. Jana & JS have really integrated this constraint in order to free themselves from it and build their own universe, notably with combinations of themes mixing character and scenery, using stencil repeatedly. They also work a lot on the supports. It is this same freedom that Adey and Obi Hood, from the Norman WCA, are now acquiring.
Your work is marked by Pre-Raphaelism. Could you come back to this artistic movement and how artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti influence your work, especially your female characters?
I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites at the Fac. 1848 and 1914 are important dates for me, because 1848 represents the great strike of the carpenters in Paris and the creation of the PRB: Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It is a holistic movement, of which painting is only one dimension. Women have their say in it, whether as models or because they are also artists. The model is no longer an object, it is a subject who will invest herself in the realization of the work. The idea of a bridge between the forms of creation and popular art also interests me, and I discovered a few years ago that I had an ancestor who was an engraver of the king, a reproducer of masterpieces, visible if not only to princes.
The influence of 19th century French painters such as Moreau or Caillebotte can also be seen.
They are linked by the period and by the fact that they are 19th century avant-gardes, but between Impressionism and Symbolism there is a play of labels that does not refer to anything concrete, as in Street art, which cannot be limited to collage, stencil and graffiti. Among the Impressionists, Caillebotte is very different from Monet or Manet. I like their work with light and everyday scenes, whereas I like the opposite with Gustave Moreau, i.e. the sense of detail, the baroque aspect and the mythological scenes. For my part, I don’t fixate on a subject without detail, without light and without meaning. Nevertheless, certain paintings such as the Raboteurs have greatly popularized my work and my pseudonym, while allowing us to recognize the maniera.
Street-Art: free art?
How was your speech groundbreaking in the field of street art?
Fifteen years ago, the idea of exhibiting Street Art in a gallery was crazy. I was a forerunner among the new generation because I was able to speak in front of an assembly of squatters and anarchists to explain that my goal was to get off the streets with stencils. I also defended the idea of not doing vandalism, which was unthinkable for the taggers of the 90s. I think that if people can buy a piece of work, that’s fine. On the other hand, if others can’t, I can always paint them a wall for free.
However, we have to stop talking about street art as free art: who can afford to spend time and energy on the street with no return? A distinction must be made between free and gratuit: the free parties of the first technivals were not free, but specified “participation in free expenses”. If you are poor you are welcome, but if you have more means you can give something. One December 31st I had made a virgin in shadow theatre for squatters, anarchists and atheists, who were protesting. I then did an open-heart operation with the stencil on the overhead projector, cutting out the radiant heart of the virgin with a scalpel so that the lettering: “Notre-Dame des squarts” (Our Lady of the squarts) would appear. From then on, it became a tribute to the work these squatters had been doing for years at the Grange-aux-Belles, but also to a certain idea of free creation.
How has this situation evolved with the professionalization of Urban Art?
I was able to put classical, religious or intellectual paintings on the street without anyone finding anything wrong with them. I developed a constructed and somewhat innovative discourse, which announced what was going to happen with the professionalization of Urban Art. These bases had to be laid so as not to go from one extreme to the other, from “vandal” to “sold”. From the outset, I opposed conformism, whether it came from the mainstream or from anti-conformism itself.
However, urban art eventually evolved. In 2006, at Arts Citoyens, JR put up posters all around the Blancs-Manteaux space, while I was sharing my work with WCA that year. He generated his own buzz by doing a personal vernissage while the exhibition was inside. It was great in terms of communication, but ethically questionable compared to the other artists present. I don’t like the idea of using public space as advertising space and using the aura of taggers and graffiti artists, heroes of the urban revolt, for personal purposes. From the moment marketing takes over, it becomes difficult to defend the idea of “free” art for people on the street.
You claim the idea that you have no political commitment, unlike artists like Banksy.
I think his commitment sounds false. When he goes to paint a wall in Ramallah, he doesn’t discuss with people to find out what they want, whereas an artist like Ernest Pignon-Ernest has been going there for thirty years to help the authors, without ever having put up a poster, because he knows it doesn’t please them. Speaking on behalf of people without asking their opinion is the hallmark of a populist discourse. I don’t think it’s normal for artists to tell me that all they have to do is call the mayor of a borough to be able to paint. Why should I have this right and not someone else who perhaps needs it more than I do?
If I am offered to paint a building facade by providing me with a basket and equipment, I might not need to pay more because then it is no longer free: it is extraordinary to have this kind of visibility. The dialogue with the inhabitants is also important for me: I painted the Raboteurs in the shop of a cobbler on rue de l’Arbalète, who provided me with the stepladder I needed to work at height. If you are going to work in the street, why not work in interaction with local residents? They’re the ones who will have the paint in front of their eyes every day.