Deconstructing false evidence through language
“It is the characteristic of the arts to give free rein to each person’s interpretation when it comes to the way in which one projects oneself in a character, in an atmosphere, in a colour. Through these mind games, I try to appeal to the references and the culture of those who watch, so that they try to go beyond what they know so that they learn something, and so do I too.“
LES FRIGOS, A COLLECTIVE ADVENTURE
Could you come back to the origin of the Frigos and their specificity as a space for collective artistic creation?
The word “collective” cannot qualify the Frigos, offered for rent and illico fully occupied since 1985 by creative people from all walks of life. Many of them came from the Fine Arts, and for the “Frigo 6” workshop we gathered together as a group of six, pierced the windows and installed everything, without thinking that it would last more than a few years. The space was rented for multiple activities, mostly artists but from different generations, and without the collective optic as one could find it in Germany or in Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian countries. Here, there are companies, craftsmen, various studios – rehearsals, photography, architecture. Everything revolves around creation, but with different objectives, successes and paths.
We could talk more about a collective for Frigo 6: we didn’t share an avant-garde form of expression or thought, but we were inhabited by the energy of the 80s, we wanted to carry out projects together, and use our three hundred metres of studio as a space for both work and presentation. Today, what unites the “community” of the Frigos is the fact of disturbance: we are fighting against pressure from institutions that would prefer this place to be administered in a different way, while it remains as it was spontaneously created thirty-five years ago.
What is the importance of the Frigos today?
It’s a special adventure, which knows its hazards. Recently there have been fences, because it’s true that it’s an easy playground, often those who come to paint consider it free. It is also a marginal place because of its location in the city, because it has imposed itself and the municipality has been a little obliged to take it as such without knowing how to manage it, because it is not an exemplary place, it cannot really represent contemporary art. It’s an eclectic mix of creative activities that finally imposed itself because it’s a place of work. You can find Shadee.K and its nours, the teams that have reproduced the Chauvet cave, various studios. This assemblage has no reason not to exist outside the institutions, and that’s what the city of Paris finds hard to accept: they would no doubt prefer to be able to set up a site similar to the Centquatre and, as with everything, with wear and tear, things will eventually change.
THE POSTER, A COMMITTED MEDIUM
Could you come back to the particularly ephemeral aspect of glued posters?
Posters degrade but do not damage the wall as paintings do, which can be perceived as real aggressions by people who would see their property degraded. The poster is part of a tradition of free expression, popular or political, which leaves the other person the possibility of sticking or writing on it, tearing it up, recovering it. For me, it was a medium that imposed itself and corresponded to a form of expression in line with my training as a graphic designer. I practiced silkscreen printing at the Beaux-Arts and I wanted to distance myself from what was already being done in the street, from the stencil and painting of Miss Tic, Mesnager and others, to find something that corresponded more to what I wanted to express, without being a repetition of my work as a painter. I wanted to address an audience that wasn’t necessarily interested in painting, to reach people who would be amused by my language, and the poster referred to May 68, to this tradition of free expression mixed with politics, advertising spirit, puns, also in these 80’s of television, of rock’n’roll culture. Silkscreen printing offered me a sensibility closer to that of a visual artist than photocopying.
For an artist like Epsylon Point, the very fact of painting in the street is a political gesture. Do you think that’s still the case today?
It is indeed a social positioning to be in the offense, even if street art is not just that. In my opinion, Street art is defined by the fact of taking the freedom to express oneself in spite of property and the respect imposed on certain places or street furniture. Painting is used as a claim, and it’s true that graffiti or tags originally express a will to stand out, to break the law, and to bear witness to a word refused by the occupation of a territory. In France, the Figuration libre has also allowed a generation of young artists to express themselves and to come to the forefront of the scene.
We also find in your works the repeated use of the slogan.
The posters took up this idea of a slogan, a synthetic and laconic message. By making small posters, concisely formulated to attract attention, with puns alluding to current events or social problems. A fairly simple graphic design, combined with a slogan, also facilitates memorization. If an artist like Miss.Tic is more in a poetic literary register, I’m closer to advertising, to an efficiency hijacked by synthesis.
THE STREET, CREATIVE SPACE
When you talk about these urban beginnings, you get the impression that the transition from the Beaux-Arts to the street was natural. Was it related to the context of the time?
I was brought to the street by friends from the Beaux-Arts who started making palisades at night. These were mostly “risky” play experiences, like the catacombs, to try new things. The palisades of the Louvre were nearby, and they wouldn’t have gone to look for a disused factory, they could have fun there, crossing the Seine. Some magazines, like Actuel, reported the actions of Mesnager or Speedy Graphito, and this spirit was floating in the air, encouraging young artists to emancipate themselves to find solutions because the art world seemed unreachable. I had been painting for a while but I could see that this universe was hermetic and that it was very difficult to exist as a young painter. When I arrived at the Frigo in 1985, I decided to take a turn in my painting, which was also a question of survival, to continue to show myself and exist.
What do you think is interesting about working on a small scale, when many artists today want to work on the largest possible surfaces?
In the 80s, I started painting on the palisades of the Louvre and Beaubourg, at the time of the VLP and the Ripoulin brothers. I hadn’t yet developed what I still do today, and painting on the walls seemed to me to be a turf war, to the one who would leave his mark last. This battle of overlapping graffiti has always amused me. Very quickly, I thought of reversing the thing to be in the small, and in the multiplication by means of the poster, on a ground which was not exploited, that of the gutters, of the interstices in the city, of these places abandoned because not maintained by the co-ownerships. These were milestones that I set on my journeys through Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Marais, Beaubourg, Les Halles or Bastille. At the time, there were few posters on the gutters, so they could stay long enough, creating a build-up.
I put some up about once a month, and I was satisfied with this minimal side, knowing that it did not offer visibility similar to that of larger pieces. I perpetuated this work, because I felt that it suited me, and that it found its audience. When you see the way Invader operated, as others are doing now, I tell myself that I opened up a field of urban expression in discreet repetition. In the end, it’s a thoughtful search for positions in the city that are not negligible, not exploited, and that can interest an audience. Some people want to act with the means of advertising and have a high visibility like John Hamon. I was more interested in intruding in the city than in appearing ostentatiously. It was also a question of means, because I was the one who printed my posters and pasted them. But the ambition of this project was also a question of time: it became interesting by its repetition and regularity. The first series of posters lasted for five years and ended up attracting attention and gaining a look that it wouldn’t have had in a shorter time.
You have thus built a dichotomy between your street paintings and your studio work.
I quickly saw that the street was also a means of communicating something other than my gallery painting. It allowed me to use another form of expression, to address another public, without calculating the impact it could have on my work, my fame and my development. Despite my discretion, the street was a form of business card, even if I didn’t count on it at all costs. All this happened at a favourable time for young painters: we were not forced to act in the street to attract attention. There was then a consumption of young painting, and Figuration Libre very quickly represented these young artists.
In what way is the street a special creative space?
The street offers an opening to a new public. After a while I ended up putting my telephone number on my posters, which attracted a few people who, knowing the posters, wanted to discover the rest of my work. But the street was not a sample of what I created in the studio, and I didn’t have to sell a product that I represented on the street, and all those who were successful were following that idea. I didn’t want to be in this form of marketing, that of a standardised product that I would be obliged to reproduce for sale. It’s a trap that Mesnager, André, or M.Chat fell into, which the success due to their visibility forced them to commercially to satisfy public demand. I wanted to free myself, to have the possibility of a work that develops and questions painting, without being a visual that can be reproduced infinitely, identically.
A WORK BASED ON COMPOSITION AND DIALOGUE BETWEEN IMAGE AND TEXT
How do you construct the dialogue between text and image?
I don’t have a rule, sometimes the theme will guide me on what I’m going to represent. Sometimes I also write down sentences that will be used two years later, or reason by analogy. As I paint, words come to me and then bounce off other concepts. There is no system, I just want to create an assembly that is not simplistic. I assemble certain elements knowing that sometimes it will take time for them to resonate with a person. So each composition is a different form of chemistry, with some sets being more philosophical, others more social. The important thing for me is to let things live, without having the will to achieve something perfect or successful at all costs.
I use different forms of play with words, turns of phrase, double meanings, in order to question language as well. Through its sophistication, the French language allows me to generate this confusion, this complex game. At the same time, I try to ensure that the image is not univocal, that it disconcerts and escapes certain conventions.
By this use of the text you give the viewer a decisive role in the interpretation of the work.
It is the characteristic of the arts to give free rein to each person’s interpretation when it comes to the way in which one projects oneself in a character, in an atmosphere, in a colour. Through these mind games, I try to appeal to the references and the culture of those who watch, so that they try to go beyond what they know so that they learn something, and so do I too. Some people ask me what my works mean. If I throw out interpretative leads, I refuse to say that they could mean only one thing.
My texts use a lot of truisms and can be simple, even simplistic. Their tone and form are reminiscent of proverbs, but reversed, forcing the audience to go back to the original idea. They will question this ancestral transmission of common sense, these obvious solutions to the problems that life can pose. My goal is to deconstruct the ready-made formulas that prevent us from thinking and that lock us into patterns. I made a poster that used the expression “We only lend to the rich” when it became a misconception. Nowadays, we lend to the poor because they earn more. There is no reason to accept these ideas because they seem to be common sense. They are evolving and they need to be reset to question language and communication. This is a kind of invitation to criticism, not necessarily negative. Understanding what the mechanisms of language and creation are, understanding how they are constructed, interests me, and the same goes for image.
Beyond this relationship to the text, how did you develop your painting over time?
From 1985 I developed an elastic character allowing several readings. It stretches to try to occupy a space signified in a linear way: sketches representing enclosed spaces. The very surface of the canvas ended up defining this space in which the character is enclosed, which was for me a plastic questioning, because this body became a play of forms set on the surface, never represented in perspective. This humanoid, with its arms and legs that can turn and stretch, allowed me to ask concrete questions about the canvas as a space, about the subject in relation to the background, about how to paint, about the creation of new pictorial spaces.
In about fifteen years, this body changed its physiognomy, was more or less thick, stretched at will. More than a body, it was a brushstroke, with the dynamics of gesture, painting and drawing. It was a painting subject questioning the space devoted to the painter through the standards of the frame and the format. This work stopped in 2000, and I moved on to other rules of work, which opened me to new questions. If the character is always present, he has no expression, no longer has his physical characteristics, is no longer alone. When there are several of them, they form a scene which is not necessarily explicit, but which tells something while remaining equivocal. I write a sentence in the proverbial form, which will certainly not clarify the image but which, by forcing the association between the two, will force us to find bridges, reading paths, which can open up reflections on the interpretation of the globality of the work’s proponents.
Unlike other urban artists who use a recurring character, you managed to extract yourself from it to play more on the composition.
I didn’t want to use the elastic character in the street, but his spiral head is a tool for representing humanity, like Keith Haring’s figures or the cave paintings which, without representing any particular identity, refer to the human race through their simplicity. It was very clear and graphic in my first posters with this spiral that occupied the place of the nose. Today, my character has a more human physiognomy, which allows me to give more space to a game of representation, through colour, clothing and sex. This basic tool can be developed in different ways.
It is also a logo because it is a form of signature, but its interest lies in the fact that it can express ideas through a representation of humanity that opens up a vast field of artistic expression avoiding the game of human comedy. Practically all street artists adopt an animal, a new way of doing things to have a sign of recognition, but it’s a pity that it’s limited to that, without conveying anything more. You can feature a cockroach or an ostrich, it’s nice and it can bring joy to the city, but sometimes it’s too close to the marketing tool.
about STREET ART
For many urban artists today, the street allows precisely a return to the aesthetics that became difficult in the era of Conceptual Art. Does this “Art for Art’s sake” constitute a limit for you?
I don’t want to pass judgment on the way the world is going, but I find that it is limited to use the street as a promotional field. Afterwards, even if it lacks relevance, everyone survives and tries to make themselves known as they want or as they can. That these people manage to be known, to sell their paintings, all the better, but fortunately there are also people who use the street by asking themselves questions that allow their work to have an interest other than adding to the overabundance of supposedly aesthetic images. This is a bit like the problem with the painted walls in the 13th arrondissement of Paris: it’s no longer Street art, and they claim that by replacing an empty wall they make the city more beautiful! I don’t quite agree: forcing a person to see a painted wall depicting a cat, for example, on a daily basis is imposing an aesthetic that is not necessarily for everyone’s pleasure. I find it difficult to claim to bring beauty to the city and this claim is a hypocritical argument, which cannot be the goal of street art. Urban artistic action is meaningful above all by playing on its aesthetic or academic appeal.
A recurring leitmotif of street art is the idea that something is necessarily prettier than nothing, that a wall is necessarily better painted than grey.
This problem can arise in disused places, poorly maintained neighbourhoods, abandoned houses. I understand the desire to bring something to these places, but there has to be a purpose. I can’t admit that all surfaces must be covered, that it is necessary to be everywhere at all costs, that every empty surface in the city must be painted under the pretext that it is Art. What I find interesting in urban expression are those who manage to play on what the city and its environment represents, on the way people look at it on a daily basis, on the light or other characteristics such as its traffic, its furniture etc. There are several factors that make the street a terrain rich in possibilities, but not only a surface that must be occupied because there is “free” space.
Beyond Urban Art, in your opinion, should every art form convey a message?
Be careful, I may like certain purely aesthetic creations, which convey plastic emotions. However, my wish as an artist is to succeed in gathering certain criteria that seem interesting to me both from the point of view of spirit and concept. To feel a strong or sincere expression, an original language, allows to bring to light the intelligence of certain artists who push us to the reflection without going to the conceptual. I like those who question themselves and whose questioning is whole because we feel that they really need it, that they don’t act only for promotional interest.
Then everyone has the right to their chance, because the reality is that people are likely to appreciate any art form. Therefore, there is no one expression that is more important than another, as long as one manages to generate emotions, reflections, or to express one’s creativity in ways that could not be shared otherwise.
To what extent do you think that the new opportunities offered by the street have encouraged the recent explosion of Urban Art, especially compared to the 1980s?
Today it has become a fad and new generations are trying to exist through it without having taken the time for personal artistic development, staying on the surface of this phenomenon without asking themselves too many questions, with more or less talent. Even if it already existed, it really became a way to make oneself known and to meet more easily the professionals of the Art market. My last series is a game about it: nothing else happens but this character showing a paper on which something is written. It’s a way of posing the problem: to know if it’s the identical repetition that gives access to notoriety or visibility, the means of advertising generating desire or envy.
I am not free from the idea of making myself known, but it has always been important for me to provide for myself so as not to be monopolized by a commercial structure that would impose a production on me. This desire to move forward has been understood by an art-loving public and has allowed me to remain independent, with visibility. My ambition is not commercial success even if it brings means, for example to finance projects that may be more formally ambitious. I have never been in the search of sponsors or grants. There is a limit that I don’t want to cross, the one that would be a compromising and constraining success.