The very rich hours of the Mushroom Kingdom
“The distinction between Good and Evil remains a central theme today, which I am the first to question. There are sometimes apocalyptic representations in my work because these are feelings that we can have within us. I don’t try to bring out the idea that we would be at the dawn of the end of the world, but feelings and anxieties. These are the feelings that I want to express. Sometimes in my paintings there’s just anger.”
How did you become an artist?
I started painting by watching my father, himself a painter. He initiated me a little by lending me equipment and books, before I was more involved as a teenager. I had friends in college with whom I spent all my classes drawing. One of them was very gifted and did Graffiti. For my part, I started with comics, before quickly sliding into painting. Then I did a short stint in Arts Deco, which lasted less than a year because I didn’t feel comfortable there. I had idealized school, but it must not have been the right time for me and I left, to pursue my career in a different way.
I was about fifteen years old when I made my first signed drawings in the street, accompanied by two friends. They were already characters with little stories. I used to draw them everywhere in Limoges, before I stopped completely at the age of eighteen. I came back to the street four or five years ago, in Paris, when I had the opportunity to make a wall towards Bastille. I liked it, and I wondered why I didn’t draw when I felt like it, making my own the supports I came across. It quickly became addictive, the street appeared to me as a multitude of blank pages so that I didn’t have to wait until I got home. One thing led to another, galvanizing encounters with passers-by and artists made me want to continue.
Before your work was centered on video game characters: how did you integrate this medieval imagery?
Already as a teenager, I was fascinated by medieval iconography, the stained glass and its very effective black ring, which I used with flat areas of colour. That passed me by and I immersed myself for a while in video games like so many of Proust’s madeleines. Gradually, my two loves got married until it became obvious: today it’s with these elements that I feel most comfortable. There are indeed symbols in video games that I’m reappropriating, like the 1UP mushroom or carnivorous plants, but I also draw other references from games or movies that marked me as a child and built my culture.
MEDIEVAL IMAGERY AND VIDEO GAMES
Video game characters and medieval imagery are two very powerful forms of icons, carrying with them a story that the viewer already has in mind when discovering the work.
I would like to find in my current work the readability that there is in medieval iconography, which is very narrative, and which manages with one image or a series of images to explain a whole story. It constitutes a familiar landmark through icons, stained glass or illuminations, and offers a reassuring doorway into the painting. Elements from video games work in the same way, the 1Up being easily identifiable. This is one of the reasons why I never detail the meaning of the paintings, as I don’t want to lock up reading, and why the stories remain coded without becoming incomprehensible. When we listen to music or look at a dancer we don’t ask for explanations. I would like my painting to feel the same way.
While many artists work on the abundance, you choose a limited number of elements. Each colour then becomes symbolic.
You have to see a piece as a rebus composed of several elements, without them being syllables. However, if the mushroom is placed in a certain place, if it is of a certain colour, it has a special meaning. In the same way, the plant can be negative or positive. I try to make people feel my drawings naturally, without having to decode them. So that they can get a feeling of well-being, of tension sometimes. Thus, the colours I use always carry a symbol, whether they are on a piece of clothing or on a character. Some are really recurrent, like pink, purple or blue. A character dressed in red will make sense. Mushrooms and plants always have different hues, sometimes autumn, sometimes spring. It’s something that amuses me a lot.
Your work also has a relationship to light, whether it is the gilding of the workshop rooms or the transparency of abandoned shop windows.
An artist for whom I have a great deal of respect encouraged me to work on shop windows. The idea made its way before one day I walked past an abandoned shop and started to draw. It makes sense in relation to my work, because the glass can be seen as a kind of neo-stained glass, mixing transparency and the street. In the studio, I work on the light with gold and by playing on the transparency by accumulating very thin layers of paint. I generally start from rather dark colours, to go towards more and more light.
The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry, which you often quote, is a book of hours, a religious book. Are you seeking to develop a relationship with the religious in your work?
My work doesn’t talk about religion at all, but I am touched by what is sacred. That is one of the reasons why I often use gold, light. Religious painting, particularly Italian, pleases me a lot, and the Alana collection at the Jacquemart-André Museum was one of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen. There you can find everything I like: these forms, these portraits, these characters or the purity that emanates from an incredibly gentle look. I would like to find this in my work even if I don’t compare them at all, because it is another era. It is more the sensitive dimension and the language they use that interests me.
YESTERDAY'S LANGUAGE, TODAY'S SPEECHES
Knowing that one of the peculiarities of iconography and that each element of the image has its own meaning, how do you compose your pieces?
While working on a piece I ask myself the question of what I want to tell, even if sometimes this approach is not at all intellectualized but spontaneous. I mix in a state of mind, an event, a current event. For the composition itself I draw from my elements, like a kind of Rosetta Stone of my symbols, which I assemble like a rebus in order to tell the story. Concerning the aesthetic aspect, I am constantly adding new characters to a base of recurring representations, the drawing now assembling itself naturally. I am often asked if the central character in these compositions is always the same, or if it is me, but this is not the case. He is like a Playmobil, each time identical but infinitely transformable. He can be a man, a woman or a knight, and adapts to the environment in which I place him and the message I want to convey.
Do you have any recurring themes? We have the impression that a medieval motif from the end of time comes back regularly, through these erupting volcanoes or comet rains.
For me, this theme is completely topical. These are questions that have been asked since the dawn of time, and which were often used in the Middle Ages to illustrate the Bible or other texts. The distinction between Good and Evil remains today a central theme, on which I am the first to question myself. There are sometimes apocalyptic representations in my work because these are feelings that we can have within us. I don’t try to bring out the idea that we would be at the dawn of the end of the world, but feelings and anxieties. These are the feelings I want to express: sometimes in my paintings there is just anger. All this can lead to rather chaotic representations. It is a question of representing Man in front of events that are beyond him, both individually and collectively. I don’t really like the idea of Man’s struggle, but life is made up of simple moments, others that are less simple, and we are a broth that brings these moments together.
Finally, this work questions our collective memory and the way we shape the figures around us: in your opinion, are we the product of our icons?
I think we are the fruit of our culture, a recipe of various ingredients accumulated over the course of our lives that make us who we are. Mine is composed of video games, films and books, painting and medieval iconography. I’ve brought out a few of these, like Proust’s madeleines. If the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry represented the life of people of that time, I would rather talk about our times: I use a line and a language from the past, which I find effective in making it current, adapting it with contemporary motifs. The representation of the Beast thus passes through the carnivorous plant. These choices are not insignificant, because I think that video games are a part of our time. I use these symbolic references from time to time in the spirit of a Trojan horse, allowing me to capture the eye by showing things that are reassuring because they are recognized. The viewer can thus enter the picture and go a little further if he or she wishes. It is a key to entering people’s minds.
What is your relationship to the ephemeral aspect of your urban interventions? Indeed, a large part of your street work is carried out on cumbersome surfaces and has no chance of lasting.
I naturally started to draw on bulky objects, because you can see them everywhere in Paris. With a Posca in my bag or in my pocket, I see the street as a series of notebooks. It also allows me to work without hiding, in a very spontaneous way, and I like the idea of working on abandoned furniture that belonged to other people before they leave for destruction. For a few seconds there is going to be a connection with these objects that are like relics from the past, and I’m going to bring them to life, which is quite logical in relation to my work. Their contextual dimension is also important: it is the story of an object at a specific time in a specific setting. If in general there is only one photograph left of it, people sometimes pick it up. If they are destroyed it is not serious because it is their life cycle. I have no problem with the ephemeral aspect.
I also like to work on the windows of abandoned shops. There is a link between the cumbersome and these disused places: on an open shop my drawing would be erased and would be disturbing, whereas in an unused place it is not invasive. I believe that this discretion, like spontaneity, is part of my approach. The relationship with the ephemeral is then different because the piece will stay much longer. Basically, I think it’s a story of traces. If we act in the street it’s because we like to disseminate our work. Whether it’s on walls, shop windows, legally or as a vandal, leaving your mark is like putting down your blaze knowing that a friend will see it and know that you’ve been there.
In what way is the street a special creative space?
In the street you expose yourself to people’s eyes while you are alone in your studio. Personally, it has completely opened me up to other artists and people. As I am not hiding, I often have interactions with passers-by who are often benevolent. This exchange is very simple and beautiful. In particular, there are many elderly people who come to see me, perhaps because they have fewer filters. It’s also fun to imagine the reactions of people I don’t necessarily meet. If the person who comes across my work feels an emotion, whether positive or negative, it is a success. It means that something has happened, that it’s not just a solitary process to be put on the back burner.
What’s your relationship to photography?
Is the photograph itself a work? I would like to but I don’t have that talent. I believe that photography is an important trace, because what counts in my work on bulky items is not only the drawing, but also the support and the environment. It only makes sense in this whole, if not as much as drawing on paper. I’m interested in the moment, in the fact of having passed through one street rather than another: sometimes I have no idea what meaning it can have, but the photo is a testimony of that moment, like when in a happy situation you photograph yourself to create memories.
Do you feel like you are part of an artistic movement?
Again, I was mostly spontaneous. I believe that this dimension brings us closer and allows us to meet each other. Matt_tieu, Ninin, Noty Aroz… We are moving in the same direction but in a different way. Urban Art is thus perhaps an infinity of individual practices that are joined by the environment in which the artists evolve. Each one carries a different message. The people I work with are motivated by the desire to do, with a benevolence that carries us all.