When personal heritage becomes urban history
“A painted wall appeals to the passer-by, and one should not think too much about whether it is controversial or not.”
a family heritage
How important has transmission been in your artistic career?
I was born into a family of artists, it’s been my environment since I was very young. It would almost have been weird if I’d gone to work in an office, with schedules and a routine. This real support has been a chance, because I know it can be difficult for a young person wanting to get into this environment without family support. My grandfather Fabio Rieti is a pioneer of Urban Art, he started in the 60s with his father-in-law the architect Emile Aillaud, making many colourings and mosaics. As a muralist, he made the fake windows of Beaubourg in 1976 and the Piéton des Halles in 1979. My mother, Leonor Rieti, quickly collaborated with him to create many painted walls before I followed the same path. I must have been in my twenties when I started to really work with my mother (more than ten years ago), first helping her build a website, before participating in her projects. Today we paint in pairs, sometimes with the help of my grandfather who, although he is now ninety-four years old, can still make models or small paintings, even if he doesn’t go up on scaffolding anymore!
With your family heritage, what is your perception of the evolution of Urban Art?
In my grandfather’s time, it was mainly public commissions. Today, offering a wall to someone is seen as an opportunity: it’s harder to get paid. Since painting is my job, I do more commissions than wild paintings. But going out with glue, a pole, to place a few collages brings another state of mind, and provides a certain adrenaline.
For one of my last collages, my mother was present, and if my grandfather could, he would come with us! I also have a two-year-old daughter. Every time she comes into the studio she sees a new painting and recognizes everything. She is already trying to steal our brushes. As she has been immersed in this environment for so long, she will certainly develop a great sense of observation.
For your grandfather Fabio Rieti, the purpose of a painted wall is to provoke a speech in the person looking at it. Do you agree?
A painted wall appeals to the passer-by, and you shouldn’t think too much about whether it is controversial or not. When I painted that lizard at the Butte-aux-Cailles, an old neighbour was living there, asking me if I had the necessary authorisations and arguing that she didn’t want to see it from her window, even though I hadn’t started. It’s always complicated to hear that when I paint, because I do it willingly, without being paid. But you have to try to ignore it, otherwise you don’t do anything! I try in this case to be courteous, so I don’t get people mad at me. In the end she was happy with the result. In this case, the wall was damaged, and I had to scrape it off and plaster it to be able to start painting it.
projects IN TROMPE-L'OEIL
How do you compose your trompe l’oeil commissioned works in the studio?
I often make a model beforehand, photographing the place and taking the dimensions. This allows me to project the final realization on Photoshop to show it to the client. The space in which the decor will be placed is very important, especially its height from the ground, which will play on the perspectives or the light. When you create a decor for a private home, you always start by looking at the direction of the light, but also how the furniture is arranged around it, to determine what the main view will be. This helps us to place the architectural elements and the characters, who must look outwards, away from the house.
Precisely, what are the differences in the treatment of architectural elements according to the plans on which they are located?
The first plans are very important in trompe l’oeil. They give the scale: when you have a full-scale element, it immediately deceives the eye, which is why it is detailed in more detail. Conversely, one must be careful not to add too much detail to a distant element in painting. In this composition the Eiffel Tower is very far away, and nothing would have prevented us from adding small lights, or even a lift, but that would bring the image closer. The farthest things have to remain a little blurred, because our gaze is not supposed to perceive them.
This illusionist aspect differentiates your commissioned work from your personal work.
What we create in trompe l’oeil is very decorative. It’s interesting because it teaches you how to paint, how to play with light, how to spot the mistakes you shouldn’t make in painting. It’s a similar basis to what classical dance can represent to other dances. Trompe-l’oeil also forges the eye and the sense of observation, to determine shapes, colours and shadows. Each stroke can totally change the aspect of a drawing or a face, make a character smile or not.
Another particularity of muralism is the scale of the projects carried out.
I love being on the scaffolding, and being able to say to myself that I’m almost the only one to have that view at that moment. But the big painted walls are a huge work. They require a pre-established project, a good model with measurements. To do this, you use a wire with powder that you stretch to square the wall and define the markers. The project itself is squared in order to be able to reproduce it. Without calculation it is impossible to paint over ten floors. In a trompe-l’oeil painting, attention is always paid to the surrounding environment. If there are windows or a specific roof, we use the same motifs so that the finished project resonates with the neighbourhood.
Do you do the gluing, or sometimes also directly on the wall?
We made a big wall in Saint-Cloud, a building facade. We work directly on site because we wouldn’t glue a 15-metre high canvas. Nevertheless, some things can be done on canvas, and some walls made by my grandfather more than thirty years ago with this technique are still there. In our project for Doha, we prepare everything in the workshop. Instead of going there for a month and occupying the space with paintings and scaffolding, everything is designed in advance. So the collage only takes a day, which suits everyone, without the slightest difference being visible once the work is done. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages and we use the most appropriate one depending on the project.
PERSONAL AND COLOURED URBAN WORK
Your work often has a dreamlike dimension.
I work with my mother on personalized projects for individuals or the public domain. For Doha the theme was Paris 1900. Beside that, I practice a personal urban art in which I like to integrate elements that refer to nature, such as the Amazon, large leaves, colors, animals, lizards… These are two different worlds that nevertheless complement each other. I like to be able to express myself with my own choices and desires, without constraints, taking my colours and letting my imagination shine through.
What does the personal component of your work bring to you?
A few months ago, I made a large lizard that climbs on a wall in the rue Alphand, at the Butte-aux-Cailles, as part of the Lézards de la Bièvre, as well as another on the Dalle des Olympiades in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. When you are offered a wall, the possibility to express yourself is incredible, as if a part of ourselves remained there, carrying everything we wanted to pass on to people.
What are you trying to elicit from the viewer?
Astonishment, curiosity, but also the fact of looking up to discover something that we would not have seen there. That’s why I use a lot of colours, or oversized animals, because then we feel like we’ve entered their home and are very small. I paint a lot of lizards with skin that allows me to use a lot of colours. Moreover, everyone finds a different animal: for some it is Godzilla, for others it is a gecko, or even a crocodile!
What is special about the street as a creative space?
I think it’s the contact with people to whom I want to bring a reflection, to make them look at what surrounds them. For me these grey walls are just waiting to be painted, and I love to see the reactions of the public, as well as the work of other artists. The street is an open art gallery: let’s go and paint this greyness so that the children raise their eyes and look curious, rather than stare at their screens. Whether we like them or not, these walls bring singularity, provoke discussion and encourage open-mindedness.
What is your view on the ephemeral aspect of Urban Art, as you create both collages with a limited lifespan, as well as perennial walls?
At first I found it difficult to create in the street, thinking that my collages could disappear the next day. Indeed, I started with commissioned works, which even in the urban space were going to last for years. So I started by gluing unique pieces, before realizing that they could be torn off. So I opted more for reproductions, even if it is better to paint on the spot, or to make original pieces. From now on I think that the ephemeral is a component of street life. It has made it even more alive and it is possible to repeat the same route several times while seeing the walls constantly changing to offer us a new reading.
The paintings that remain in time are also sometimes noticed in a comical way: about twenty years ago my mother had created an Italian decor in a pizzeria, which later became a kebab. As they liked the painting, it has remained of the period. These painted walls that we made, or those that my grandfather painted, are a page of my life and my history, like a trace of our passage, and I wish my daughter could see them for years to come as I can do now.