HIJACK IMAGES TO RECOMPOSE A COMMON MEMORY
Speedy Graphito is one of the major figures of French Urban Art since the 80s. His work, by hijacking the codes and icons of pop-culture, questions our collective memory and the way in which the same image or painting can address people differently depending on their age or background, while being readable by everyone on the surface of the world.
But the artist’s work also bears witness to a refusal to take the easy way out, he who always looks elsewhere for answers when others would like to lock him into a single motif or character. Speedy Graphito is a creator of avatars, but he refuses to be trapped by repetition and the demands of the art market. In his own way, he distances himself, in search of always more time, always more freedom.
How did you become an artist?
As a child, I used to draw all the time, especially in kindergarten during nap time. Very quickly I took lessons at the local youth centre, while at home I reproduced all the objects I found when there was no class. At the end of 9th grade, I wanted to go to an art school and my parents didn’t oppose it. So I started at the Maximilien-Vox high school (then the rue Madame school), before joining Estienne. Drawing has always been a passion, a kind of aptitude from the start.
You explain that you were first intrigued graphically by the juxtaposition of Mayan codex symbols.
From the beginning I wanted to represent my surroundings. When I discovered the Mayan codexes, I realized that it was a form of writing that made it possible to tell stories. For me, who didn’t know this language, it was the possibility offered to link different elements while keeping a freedom of interpretation according to the point of view. There were symbols, such as the repetition of the same character at different stages of his life within the same image. So my first painting was a fetus turning into a skeleton, the representation of the cycle of human life, with a character getting up, going to work, eating, going home and sleeping. To represent the human being I created my first very simple character, with a square, a head and two arms, so that I could reproduce it easily.
Has coming from advertising had an influence on your work and the way you perceive society?
At the Estienne school I was in visual expression, which in principle trains me more to be an art director than an artist. I learned to decipher an image, to understand that everything it contained was symbolic, whether it was a person (which represents a social background or a way of thinking) or a colour. But if we know how to decode images, we can also code them, and I use this promotional language to defuse the propaganda put in place and divert it.
What is the difference for an artist between the 80s and today?
Artist in the 80’s and in the 2010’s are two different professions. Before, the artist only existed through representation in galleries, whereas today he has to promote himself, feed social networks next to his studio work. All this takes a lot of time, it’s really two activities in parallel. Moreover, not everything that predates the Internet exists, because there are very few traces of it. For collectors it is impossible to know if one has been painting for five or ten years.
What techniques did you start with? How did the street appear in your path?
In the beginning I just used paint, but mostly I painted on upholstery because my father is an upholsterer and decorator. I have always been surrounded by fabrics that inspire me, offering me themes: Indian colours, a shiny aspect for luxury or raw for prehistory. My street work appeared in the year 1980, when I finished my art studies and started to paint again. It took me some time to deform myself and try to find my own writing. At that time there was no access to galleries, which did not accept my work, but I wanted to be confronted with an audience. That’s how I started to reproduce the paintings in stencil form and stick them around my building.
Your work on caniles de Jouy is already in this respect an exercise in recomposition, like what your works on pixelisation will be.
I had a toile de Jouy fabric at home when I was a child, which brought fantasy and interpretation, being an assemblage of squares of reinterpreted existing images. I believe that one cannot escape what one is: I often have the impression of finding a new idea for a series, before realizing that this same idea was already present in my work long before, even in a rather minimalist form. There are recurring obsessions such as the square motif, which is at the same time the decomposition of the image, the tiles, but also the tiles of the hospital where I used to go to see my sister when she was ill. So it is linked to my story.
The square is also the White Square on White Background, the ultimate work of Kasimir Malevitch. It is so absolute that it is difficult to go any further. Finally, it is the pixel: the basic element of a digital image, the passage between figuration and abstraction. It allows a new relationship to space: you go from your neighbourhood to the vision of the whole world. The pixel is the frontier between the virtual and the real, through augmented reality, which makes the contours more confused.
How did paint and stencil mix from the 2000s onwards?
It depends on the series. I only use the stencil if I really want to render its particularity, that is to say the cutting and the small fasteners, which are also a graphic code. I like to mix the supports, working on the differences between canvas, palisade, cardboard, sculpture… It allows me to touch different materials such as metal, wood, earth or paper and forces me to reinvent things. Indeed, we don’t work in the same way in two or three dimensions and curiosity pushes me to try to move from one to the other. The idea of discovery inspires me. For example, the Free Zone series was based on paintings (themselves representing sculptures!) that I made in 1986/1987, and tried to imagine what would become of them if they had remained on the street for twenty years. Here we have a look at time.
However, your favourite medium remains the canvas.
I like the canvas and the stretcher because I consider it to be the most basic and therefore the most difficult thing. It’s always easier to use a new material that has just come out: you feel like you’re doing something new with a laser because you’re using a medium that didn’t exist before. Painting is ancestral, to succeed in renewing it within the limits of the frame, working on a closed format, is a challenge. This tradition makes it possible to follow in the inexhaustible line of artists who have created things so different and yet so strong on the same rectangle of canvas.
Your first character evolved very quickly on the one of Lapinture, so as not to be trapped by a single avatar.
This first character with a crest was highly mediatized, appearing in particular on the poster of the Art Rush. I thought that if I continued I would be trapped in that image, but I wanted to be free, so I killed him quickly enough to create another one. It’s a constant in my approach: as soon as a creation becomes mainstream I tend to try something else, thinking that if people had accepted what came before, I could take them to more difficult works, and especially to abstraction, so that they would discover what they wouldn’t have looked at otherwise. Separating oneself from one’s characters is also a way of constantly renewing and questioning oneself: as they were from their time, I would still be an artist of the 80s today if I had continued to paint them.
What is the place of abstraction in your approach?
The abstract or figurative debate no longer exists. Abstraction allows us to tell as many things as figuration, it remains a form of narration. What interests me is to mix a work that can be very gestural and spontaneous, playing on drips and stains, with a very precise and sharp work. This inspiration comes from the street and from these frescoes covered by others, creating a dialogue where expressions that have nothing to do with each other but bring a common richness. In our multicultural world, the fact of mixing these different glances makes it possible to talk about this evolution of humanity which is metamorphosing to become one country.
You explain that you feel alienated from your paintings, unattached once they are finished. Why is that? Is it related to the speed of execution?
I think that if you get too attached to what you do, you can’t move forward. Admiration for one’s own work leads to a kind of confinement, that’s why I always think about the next painting, with a curiosity for what follows. What interests me is to do as much as possible to try to go as far as possible in the representation of things, and that’s why I’m always working, always questioning things in order to move forward. Nevertheless, they also represent time: I don’t have the impression that I’ve reached the end of what I wanted to say or show, and despite my name, Speedy, I have the impression that I’m long in my creation.
PLAY WITH SEVERAL ARTISTIC CURRENTS
Your style often pays homage to the different artistic currents of the 20th century.
I love painting above all, whether it is classical, modern or contemporary. The first canvases with Lapinture were in black and white, composed of few contrasts with a character that seemed luminous, almost immaculate. These tributes are made of things that have marked me, that I respect and revisit in my own way. They are people who proposed new languages, which say much more about the time than a photograph or a piece of film: the destructuring of cubism is the evidence of a way of thinking about the world. These artists who proposed an evolution of the gaze inspired me. Modern Art, for example, allows the artist to no longer represent things figuratively, but in relation to a feeling, a touch, and the invention of emotional techniques.
Why are you associated with Street art when your work is mainly done in a studio?
The street is anecdotal in my work. But right from the start, the fact that I’ve done things in the street and have been mediatized in the street has put a label on me. There’s the fantasy side of the person who paints on a wall compared to the gallery artist. Yet I have always defended myself from being a street artist. For me, the street is only a means of showing my current creative work. One could consider it as a diary linked to my studio research work. At the moment I am working on an abstract series, and if I am asked to make a wall it will be abstract. Conversely, a real street artist paints in the street before reproducing his creation on canvas to be able to sell it and thus continue to create outdoors. Finally, we can note the abuse of language: in front of my paintings people talk about graffiti because now the word is used as a synonym and it sounds better, even though it is about different things.
CONSUMER SOCIETY AND COLLECTIVE MEMORY
Your work then slides towards a revival of characters from popular culture.
I’m very interested in collective memory, in globalization, and I thought I would feel freer by using universes from popular culture to divert them, tell something else and not be a prisoner of a style. Out of a taste for nostalgia, I also seek the emotion I had as a child in front of works, which was simply felt without judgment. By using rather childish images, I realize that I am waking up the child in people, buried in them by adult life.
You say that “popular culture is the guardian of our collective memory”. Mass culture involves the search for the lowest common denominator and thus shapes our common memory. But is this memory universal and not just Western, specifically American or Japanese?
While travelling I realized that in Algeria they adored Inspector Gadget. At first I thought he was not part of their culture, but in reality these characters linked to childhood are now part of a global culture transmitted by television. This makes it possible to speak with codes and references identifiable in all countries. If the language is different, the image is common and that’s precisely what interests me: using them as a universal language. I am trying to defuse the prefabricated language that exists in order to divert its meaning. We are so accustomed to certain things that we sometimes lack hindsight, and seeing them in a different context allows us to rediscover their original meaning that we may have forgotten so much as it is part of our daily lives.
A character like Mickey is universally known. Of course, some countries have used this popular culture to make propaganda and transmit their vision of the world, like the manga that talk about ancestral values through cartoons. The United States also conveys its culture through these new media. On the other hand, I find it difficult for France to promote its own, even though it is strong and very creative. Although we had a preponderant place in the art world at one time, I find that we defend it less and less. When I touch these characters, who have almost become icons, I transform this propaganda of other countries with my European, French eye, adding my own vision and that of my own culture.
Your canvases are very saturated and often deconstructed, which generates a feeling of vertigo, like Villeglé’s torn posters.
It depends on the series, but if I like to overload the space, it’s because my environment is saturated, all the more so with the Internet. As an artist, I try to talk about my time and how I feel about it. I try to translate this overabundance in my paintings, which causes an attraction for the public because it is part of their daily life, but also a certain form of rejection because they feel both suffocated and manipulated, almost obliged to love. As far as deconstruction is concerned, we actually realize that from an extremely small surface we manage to recompose the image as a whole, so much so that it is integrated into our memory. I thus play a lot on deconstruction and the fact that memory will reconstruct the original image.
You say that Art is a commitment in itself; your works make you identifiable as an artist of the times in which you live.
It’s like a diary. You can date them, even though I use a lot of old elements. I’m trying to break down generational barriers to have a multi-coded painting that can be understood by someone who is six years old as well as sixty, because everyone will have a piece of the puzzle. The references I use also reflect my concerns: maybe in ten years’ time smartphones won’t exist anymore, and in that case my series devoted to them will symbolize a moment of evolution, like the Internet language, or pixelization. Today we don’t see pixels anymore, whereas before we used to dream in front of some squares in a video game, thinking we were racing cars with two rectangles and a line!
Does the reuse of pre-existing figures place your work, in your opinion, in the field of the Art of appropriation?
These images are part of my memory. I use them because as soon as they are distributed they have been part of my universe and I consider them as real creations: in my opinion Disney is a creator in the same way as Andy Warhol. As I divert them there is no possible confusion, the viewer will see the difference between Disney and my paintings. Moreover, these images are reused everywhere and there are even impressionist paintings to decorate chocolate boxes.
You say you perceive the art market as a kind of cash dispenser that provides money in exchange for paintings. How can we prevent this relationship from becoming a constraint for creation?
This is the problem that arises when you are stuck in a style without being able to change it. There are artists who will want to evolve and make an attempt in this direction, but people want what is most identifiable. I don’t like money and I allow myself to do what I want: it’s not because I’m selling a series that I’ll exploit it until it’s sold out. At some point an idea comes to mind, whether I decide to follow it or not, which sometimes leads to a crossroads, but all my works are connected, however different they may be.
BRANDS AND DIGITAL
Some of your canvases ask the question of choice by asking the viewer for “validation”. This raises the question: what should we keep?
When we look at the tourists, we see them behind a screen because they film everything, they are no longer in the moment but already in the after. Beyond this question of sorting, there is also a broader question. When I say “Do you really want to save this image? “when I show a landscape, it also speaks of ecology. Will we be able to make this picture in twenty years? These are questions that can be read in two ways. In this case, saturation makes it possible to offer a first level of simplistic reading, before asking questions about time, life or the future to those who take the time to look. The painting thus evolves with the viewer’s gaze.
This brings into play our relationship to the image.
Our relationship to images has changed a lot. Today people look at them for a few seconds, but an hour later they are already old and disappear in a flood. Moreover, the fact that art is now seen more on the telephone than in galleries or museums also questions the artist about his work. It is not a question of fighting against this movement by not putting anything on social networks, but of making it a source of inspiration, to deal with this problem by using these new tools.
How does your work relate to brands?
I used brands for the first time in my paintings in 1990, on the occasion of an exhibition: Speedy Graphito: Product of Art. The double meaning was obvious: I produce Art and I myself am a “product” of Art. I had chosen about twenty brands on which I had a very personal look. It wasn’t a question of filling an order or advertising, but of showing as an individual how they had intervened in my life. I had a piece on Knorr soup and I thought that when I die, I would be cremated so that my ashes, put in a soup bag, would be served at a big meal at my funeral, so that I could live again through people. This is not something that could be used to advertise in a magazine. The power of the artist lies in this freedom to say and do things without the constraint of merchandising and the obligation to sell.
How important is freedom in your work?
I defend this freedom enormously. The freedom to paint what I want despite the system that does everything to make you identifiable and repetitive. There are so many people and so much information that you have to hammer the same image for years and years so that people can spot it. My background has influenced a lot of young artists and I’m quite happy to have been able to show that this was possible. You can break the rules, go through other ways, the important thing is to be yourself and to always remain free of your mind and your creation.