Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage
« I think that the works have a mysterious way of acting, a mystery whose foam is only perceived. But they even work once they are destroyed. »
first urban steps
Can you look back at your first steps as an urban artist, and how you are gradually becoming established within the city, while making your work visible?
This requires contextualization. Today, with the Internet, it is possible to disseminate a work widely in an instant. But in the 1980s, these possibilities were limited for an artist, and the usual pattern most often passed through museums or galleries. My interest in Urban Art came from the fact that it allowed direct communication with the public, a face-to-face meeting. This is what I lacked in the gallery – I had already done some exhibitions – in a space that had something sterile about it.
I adopted a snail-like approach strategy, starting from Versailles and heading towards the centre of Paris, starting gradually, modestly, in order to subvert my fears. At the time, the Halles was already under construction, it was a boiling district with many billboards and passageways. This objective has allowed me to improve my techniques for showing fairly large and spectacular paintings, because when there are about ten posters to stick, it requires rapid production. Yet I didn’t think it would lead anywhere: sometimes you start things by going into the unknown.
At that time, the other possibility for people who did not have the capacity to go to the gallery was media coverage: a few leading figures like Mesnager or Speedy Graphito highlighted all these new artists from the street but not linked to contemporary art. The notion of street art did not exist, the artists were grouped under the name « Jeune Peinture ». Following an exhibition in Rennes, we also talked about « Media Peintres », a reference to using the street as a medium between the artist and the public, but also because it was one of the only ways to make oneself known.
From your first poster, Louez Granada!, an interaction is created between painting and context by revealing the advertising slogan.
Louez Granada! is a coincidence that turned out well. At the time, I had a very small workshop that was not very large, and which did not go beyond 2.2 metres in height. Art is sometimes born from coercion to die in freedom. When I painted, I always had to deal with part of the surface on the ground. In general, advertisers place their slogan as high as possible, which has allowed them to appear by sticking my own posters on top. This process was interesting because it offered an escape from standardized advertising. I came with trash paint, very simple, sometimes leaving my phone number. There was a gap between the advertising medium and this painting that had nothing to sell.
How did the Ripoulin Brothers’ collective fit into the period of artistic effervescence of the 1980s?
Without the Internet, the possibilities of meeting each other were very random. However, there are circumstances, chances, that allow people to meet people who want to go somewhere, without really knowing where, and create energy conjunctions. For my part, this chance comes from the discovery of a reproduction of Keith Haring. What interested me was to get off the beaten track: when people are in these phases, they end up meeting each other. Thanks to the sending of a file to a friend in New York, I was invited to discover this city and this environment where everything was in germination, around some great figures like Basquiat or Keith Haring.
I didn’t have a strategy. So, it was at this very moment that I met the Ripoulin family, who sent me pictures of their work in Paris. I show them myself to Shafrazi, who comes to France, and decide to organize an exhibition for the month of January of the following year! Some of us never had an exhibition in our lives, start in New York, before a year later the band exploded. The beauty of the thing comes from this effervescence. Today, we can have a marketing vision, plan for the longer term, but at the time it had to be done, even if it meant stopping everything 2/3 years later.
I was very surprised when in the early 2000s I realized when I met Tom Tom in Oberkampf, that he knew my name. It was the beginning of the Internet, and a book by Denis Riou gave a rather broad perspective of what was happening on the French urban art scene. This book has become a reference and has contributed to allowing this story to develop over time.
It is difficult for an urban artist to find a form that emerges, integrates and blends into the street at the same time, in a contextual dimension.
With my work on the posters, the frame already referred to the painting and so the rest of the environment was not that important. What counts for an advertisement is the number of people who go to see it, not its context. Street-Art has played a lot more on this dimension, because when you paint directly on a wall you have to take into account what is happening around it, the interest coming from working with the environment, its accidents and its spaces, which makes it very complex. I simplified this problem by extracting myself from the wall, and if I am asked today to paint outdoors I have more difficulties because I don’t have that meaning, unlike an artist like OX who for me makes the perfect link between my work and a purely contextual work. His approach, magnificent and intelligent, represents a little bit the essence of urban art.
a constantly changing creation
The place occupied by the workshop is very important in your work.
I have a fairly classical artistic background: I like the silent work in the workshop. I have done very little live work on the street, have never done any wild paintings. When I wanted to create something outdoors, I wanted it to be both connected to the studio and the street, which led me to find forms adapted to the scale of the city, strong visual boundaries that transformed my work. The idea was not to spend two weeks on a painting that could disappear after 24 hours.
Your journey challenges the figure of an artist confined to a single motif, operating in cycles and without a defined form.
The problem for the artist today is that if he does not have a strong visual identity, he is not seen, recognized or shown. It is a real problem, which often locks artists into a form, especially in the street which sets several constraints: act quickly, with a very strong style. This does not allow a big evolution over time and many artists find it impossible to develop their work when they have been identified by a certain format.
For my part, I followed my deep desire to go where I wanted to go. I studied mural art so that no one would tell me what to do. There have obviously been temptations to stop at a form, but by developing this way of approaching a work, there is a moment when the desire to change becomes too strong: in a series of sculptures, when I have just made 3 or 4 sculptures that interest me because they are complete, I could continue them indefinitely. I will then look elsewhere, towards painting or photography. Not being where you are expected is also a way of being subversive in this environment.
If the form has constantly evolved, your interest in faces or the human body has remained permanent.
But the man has not changed him, his inner contractions are still there. Spiritual traditions say that the path is more important than the goal you want to achieve. In the end, the human body or the face are boat subjects that many artists have dealt with. However, we can say things that go beyond this universal subject. To represent a body or a head is to speak of Humanity, of energy. Even without a body, we still talk about that.
A few years ago I made a series of still videos, without anyone in the camera’s field, only Nature in motion. But even without anyone in front of the camera, the film is about what’s behind it. It is the same for painting or sculpture: the stakes are different from the object represented. It is for this reason that I do not sacralize the art object, which has something vain. I am interested in the space in which this object is, its spiritual dimension, but this has nothing to do with the object itself. I could make a gesture as a dancer that would become a work of art, but what would remain of it afterwards? After a piece of Bach there is nothing left. In this respect, dance and music give a good idea of what an ephemeral art is.
During your creative cycles, you oscillate between very accomplished plastic forms, and the desire for a systematic return to drawing, with a need to produce a lot and spontaneously.
Tony Shafrazi called this desire to produce a lot a « productive rebellion ». This idea is interesting in relation to the street, because it suggests a revolt that proposes and produces. We are locked in this structure on a daily basis where we die if we stop working. There is a constant question as to what would happen if we stopped producing or working. It is a problematic personal psychological structure. A few years ago, I started a process of reflection on this, realizing that in the workshop the body no longer existed, that one could spend 10 hours there to come out with pain. This raises questions about being an artist, and when you stop being an artist.
You talk a lot about cubism.
Cubism is one of the dead ends I went to explore. When Shafrazi offered to continue our collaboration, I told myself that I had gone too fast in my approach to get to the very definite approach I had. So I went to look at Art History, and turned to cubism, which was a bit for me the birth of the French spirit. At a time when I was wondering if I was going to stay in the United States to become more American than French, I wanted to see what I could find in those roots.
However, it is possible to wonder what remained to be explored by cubism.
This was necessary on a personal level. Cubism is a form, but it is also a state of mind, an inner construction. I knew I was going to get into some derogatory comments, especially since I was engaging in them head-on. I was no stranger to it. I gave myself this freedom when you could say to yourself that there is no point in going down a path after the passage of prestigious references like Braque or Picasso. To be an artist is to have this incredible freedom to go and see if that’s what you feel. I often tell people that if I am here today it is because I was there yesterday, there the day before yesterday, and if I had not been there the day before yesterday I would not be here today with my mistakes and my intuitions. To question these phases is to want to question who I am today, and it is futile to try to do so.
At the origin of the M.U.R.: the street is a breeding ground
With the M.U.R. your approach is part of a global creation, serving the collective.
The beginnings of my interest in the collective in the broad sense began with the Ripoulin family in the 1980s. But it was with the M.U.R. and other events organized at the same time that they started to take up more space. With some friends we are now in the process of founding an urban art federation and it is again another collective adventure. This openness over the past ten years has led me to broaden my perspective, asking other questions.
The street is a breeding ground for artists.
When we see today that Pierre Huygues is in the Top 10 of contemporary French artists, we must understand that urban artists are evolving. I told people in the early 2000s to be careful what was happening on the street because these artists would end up in museums 10 to 15 years later. They are often people who are not interested in the world of Art as it is, who want to find other forms of expression, and who take risks. Urban Art thus offers a breeding ground for future Art. However, not everything is interesting, and it is not because you create in the street that you will be the Picasso of tomorrow, but the qualities that are developed there are a certain generosity, an energy, a fight. This creates interesting and original careers and paths.
What is the particularity of Urban Art compared to Contemporary Art?
The development of urban art has hardened because of the rejection of contemporary art towards this new form. Street-Art has developed despite institutions, police and people’s mistrust. He found autonomous economic modes and pioneering modes of distribution, with sites such as Art Murs (« ARMVR ») that showed graffiti online since the early 2000s. Gradually, institutions began to take an interest in this movement by wondering how we had done it. If it worked, it was precisely because they were not interested. At one time, the sale of T-shirts and commercial items allowed some people to survive while waiting to sell paintings.
What did you mean by comparing the city to a 62-square chess game?
The city is a kind of chess game. I had met Joel Lautier at the Café Charbon, and asked him a question that was essentially: « What is your favorite position? « He had given me a little problem, which like any failure problem is almost a matter of love. We have intuitions during a game and we often find moves when we play them. The same is true of the artist’s work, of intuitions that lead to dead ends, that bring us back to the past and then allow us to go somewhere else.
reflection on the work and the artistic process
In the book Jusque-là tout va bien, you poetically evoke the ephemeral nature of the work, which would be the idea of « producing and wasting ». Creating in the street is like creating at a loss, but still creating.
Urban art has the particularity of producing works and forms that we know have a programmed obsolescence. You have to mourn it, which may seem a little strange at first, before it turns into a psychological pattern: it’s strange if the work is not destroyed. Nostalgia cannot exist, or only through photography. It has made me progress a lot in my work and in my relationship with the world. Indeed, the world of Art is a world of conservation and protection. When we have works in a French museum, we know that they will be very well preserved. This sacralization is something quite strange, especially when the works are in the public space. If the Mona Lisa were put in a cellar for 50 years and allowed to disappear, what would happen? The fact of having ephemeral paintings allows, in my opinion, to put this into perspective.
The work would only exist to be shown….
The problem with this idea is that if the work only exists because it is shown, all those that are not are denied at the same time, because they are made by artists less known or less talented than Leonardo da Vinci. I think that the works have a mysterious way of acting, a mystery whose foam is only perceived. But they even work once they are destroyed.
The fact that research predominates over the materialization of the finished work places you in a very contextual approach.
There has been a misunderstanding around conceptual works for a number of years, which show a predominance of the concept over the object. Let us take the retrospective of Pierre Huygues. It was interesting to find the man I had known 20 years earlier. In a way, the feeling we had when we entered the exhibition was almost carnal. In reverse, Urban Art is about doing before thinking, as a response to conceptual art: creating first and then thinking.
You also say: « I have realized that the artistic process is based on a confinement and an openness. »
It is a glorious confinement because it brings out objects and forms that others can admire, but what happens to the artist in all this? People dream of being artists but I advise them against it because when you realize that you are as locked up there as anywhere else, it is a real existential shock that needs to be repaired. It is difficult to get out of this process, and this explains in particular the difficulty for artists to engage in psychoanalysis. Isn’t there a way to consider Art for something other than solving problems? When you dig deep inside yourself, you can produce things that are interesting, but on a larger field, more difficult to define.
This question of identification with a specific form, and the perverse effects that this can have, is at the heart of the work of many urban artists.
The studio is the cursed space of the artist as the street is the space of the urban artist. However, the latter can also have the workshop, a place where he can experiment. But it is dangerous to do research, because you can end up with results that interest you but that, for several reasons, are unpredictable. I share my studio with Seth, and for the past 6 months I have seen some of his creations take a darker direction. When the merchants discover his work, I don’t know how they will react. But he’s looking for something he doesn’t say on the street. I think that for urban artists these trips are really interesting and allow them to question these forms. When these artists have reached a completeness of form, they ask themselves questions, want to enrich and update their work, but it is difficult.
Few artists play with identity. Artists seek and are identified immediately, especially through social networks. There is no mystery.