The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 37: ASSASSINATION: Blek le Rat (Xavier Prou), Artist Represented by Jonathan LeVine Gallery

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Photograph of Blek le Rat with Lori Zimmer at his solo show. Courtesy of Jonathan LeVine Gallery.
Blek le Rat: Shell, spray paint on canvas, 23 by 37 inches, edition of 2. Courtesy of Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

Respect! This is the man with the master plan.

Being a street sticker artist, I began to search for the origin of how it all began. Within the hip-hop culture, there is always a strong sense of history whether it be deriving samples from obscure soul and funk samples or riffing with voiceovers from bits and pieces of culture. The finest example is The Bomb Squad which combines the fragments of our culture into a new one. Before Banksy became famous, French street artist Blek le Rat was dropping his mysterious stencil while painting up the town. According to various sources, Banksy said of this master, “every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.”

The strength of street artists is their sense of humanity and their willingness to fight the system at all costs. Plus their desire to transform the mundane urban cityscapes into new museums have created a new vitality that points the direction for our future gleaming in the distance. So enough said and on to the show everyone has been waiting for.

If you have any questions about Blek le Rat’s artwork, feel free to contact Jonathan LeVine Gallery at info@jonathanlevinegallery.com or at (212) 243-3822.

And now for the feature presentation by THE ART ASSASSIN’s account of the “assassination”:

qi peng: How are you doing today? Thanks for the interview, Blek le Rat. You have been recognized as the pioneer of postmodern street art. How has your style and methods changed over the years?

Blek le Rat: When I started in 1981 to paint rats in Paris, nobody cared about what I was doing even when the police caught me they usually invited me to continue to paint in the streets. They considered that it was art and not a political statement. Now it is another story and more complicated with the police. I don’t think my style changed so much in these years because a style is the most difficult thing to find for an artist and this is the reason when you have a good style you influence other artists. To find  a subject is pretty easy. Newspapers, police station, magazines are full of ideas to run. My method of working changed a little because in 1981 I did not have a computer to work with. Therefore, I needed to draw my stencils and it took me a long time to produce a stencil at this time. Now I use a lot my computer which help me a lot to build an image it goes really faster and the result is really better.

qi peng: What was it like doing the street artworks in Paris during the early 1980’s? What do you think of the new jacks like Banksy and Shepard Fairey who have continued your venerable tradition of stencil work and political involvement? What aspects of their artwork do you enjoy best?

Blek le Rat: As I said before to work in Paris in 1981 was really easy nobody cared of it. I used to work by night for a question of security but I am sure I could work in the daytime with no problem with everyone. When I started to work in the streets of Paris I don’t remember to have seen graffiti art in the streets. There was a lot of politics graffiti something like politic slogans, everything started, I would say in 1983/84 when a lot of artists started to understand that to make a painting in the streets was an interesting experience to live. Most of the people used to paint small stencils with some politic or social references. I remember the first stencil that I have seen in summer 1984 was signed by a guy called “Marie Rouffet”. This guy was really talented and I used to like a lot his work but after few years.  And as many people who make street art, they disappear after a while. I don’t know what he is doing now.In the winter 84/85 so many guys invaded the streets of Paris with stencils that it is impossible to say who was there at this time.

I respect a lot Shepard Fairey and Banksy because these two guys have a lot of talent and they brought a new aspect of how, this art could be considered by the people today. I know that they received an inflluence from my work at the begginning but they did their own way of creation and now they influence the others artists with their creations which is great. I think Shepard is the most prolific artist of our time and the most interesting person to meet. I had a show last year in his gallery “Subliminal projects” in LA and I had a great time with him and with his collaborator Jeremy Kaplan. About Banksy I really love the poetry of his images and his social and politic point of view.

qi peng: What is the current status of street art within the European community? How does it differ from the American street art scene? Do you feel that the involvement of street artists within the context of the establishment, say the gallery system, is a “compromise” of the artist’s original intent and political thrust?

Blek le Rat: I think Great Britain reflects the main current status of street art in Europe now. In France unfortunately I do not see an artist who can say that he emerges from the wave of all artists who make graffiti art. In GB we can find some really good artists who have something to say in art and it’s the same in USA. I do not think that British art scene differs a lot from the US because the globalisation of the world. I also do not think it’s a compromise to show our work in galleries. We belong to the chain of history of art and in this chain, galleries, museums have an important place. I also believe that an artist need to work with a gallery just because the work the gallery makes the artist can’t make it by himself.

qi peng: I first saw your brilliant work during your solo show at Jonathan LeVine Gallery entitled “Paris-New York, New York-Paris.” How did you get involved with the Chelsea gallery and in what ways did the show fulfilled your vision of how you wanted to present your work? Is the audience supposed to respond to the artwork different than if they encountered your pieces in the street settings? Are there any future shows coming down the pipeline?

Blek le Rat: I have got involved with “Jonathan Levine Gallery” two years ago by Mike Snelle and “Black rat press” in London which is the gallery representing my work in GB. When I show paintings in a gallery I try to work at two different levels. First of, I show some images that I have done in the streets before as a memory of what’s happened before in the streets. those images can be showed on different support like canvas or piece of wood. On a second hand I like to show images I have never done in the streets.

Yes i am preparing an installaton at Phaiz gallery at Chicago for the first of May 2009. The experience should be interesting as I would like to invite some streets artists of Chicagoland to paint with me a large fence of wood during the show. The concept is really interesting because we use to work like that in the streets someone start to paint a wall and the day after another artist add a new image and so on until at the end a real piece of spontaneous creation appears. At my first show in LA last year I did the same thing and the result was incredible interesting. Also the owner of Phaiz gallery Robin Kyle had the brillant idea to create some ingenious remnants of outdoor place inside the gallery and I think it is going to be really amazing…

qi peng: How much research do you do before you execute the template for the stencil and/or wheatpaste artwork?

Blek le Rat: It depends the image I make sometimes it takes  a really long time researching through all my documentations and books, sometimes it takes me only few minutes.

qi peng: What is the thought process before you figure out how to you want to begin or complete the work itself?

Blek le Rat: I imagine a new image for any reasons and I create the image first with a pencil and a paper or I work with a photo that I have taken or that I have found on internet and after I work on the image with my computer and then I draw it on a large piece of paper or cardboard and when the image is finished I cut it to make a stencil.

qi peng: Why do you choose such iconic images such as the statue of David or an image of Christ or a picture of a Shell truck for each individual piece?

Blek le Rat: I use iconic images because they belong to our inheritance of humanity and I like this idea of inheritance. About the Shell truck it was just a joke with my son Alex…

qi peng: How are we supposed interpret the dramatic imaging for each of the images?

Blek le Rat: I don’t know, I really like when people see a different thing than me in my images. Sometimes I am really surprised by how the others interprete my images and I like that a lot. It means that my images do not choke the other people. My images leave them a free space where they can evolve. This is very important for me.

qi peng: Is it influenced by high contrast photography, Andy Warhol silkscreens, or the lighting within Renaissance artworks?

Blek le Rat: Absolutely yes.

qi peng: What are some reasons you think that Banksy prefers to keep his identity a complete secret like Thomas Pynchon or Beckett‘s Godot?

Blek le Rat: I think Banksy is a very intelligent person who knows exactly how to manage with the medias and public. To keep his identity secret makes him more attractive and unreal and this is really clever in our time when everyone wants to be famous and recognized.

qi peng: How does your public identity as Blek le Rat differ from the private individual who is known to the public?

Blek le Rat: It does not differ at all. I am the same person always since I was born. I don’t think I changed since my youth, I am always the same person. Also I do not know how to be different and for example I am very bad liar and I imagine I should be a very bad actor.

qi peng: Is there a philosophical bipolarity which we can read into that axiom?

Blek le Rat: [no answer]

qi peng: Does your work take any cues from the hip-hop world in terms of its spirit or boldness like a guerilla fighter?

Blek le Rat: I only listen hip hop music even if, I have to admit it I do not listen music as I used to before, when I was young.And yes I would say that nowadays my work is more influenced by Hip Hop culture than by any different kind of culture.

qi peng: In what ways are you a visual archaeologist for Western culture?

Blek le Rat: Yes, I dig in different aspects of Western culture and I try to transform the concepts and the idea of this culture in images.

qi peng: In what ways are you a scholar of both the books and the streets? What do you think about Brassai‘s photographs of graffiti artwork from the early 20th century?

Blek le Rat: I discovered Brassai’s photographs a long time ago in 1972 by a friend of mine “Rodolphe Herve” who had Brassai’s book. Rodolphe’s father was a very well known photographer in France who used to work with the French architect “Le Corbusier”. I remember exactly the first time I saw this book and I remember aswell that I started to take picture of Children graffiti in the streets of Paris with my camera at the same time…

qi peng: Your most famous image (at least, one of them) is a businessman with shades on, holding suitcases of stencils with the label “Blek le Rat.” What is the origin of that image and what symbolism are we supposed to read into that pictorial representation?

Blek le Rat: This is a self portrait and it supposes to be a traveller getting through the walls and reappearing in another country. The idea of a man travelling without constrain and discovering the world.

qi peng: What is your view on capitalism and the way that it functions in today’s art world?

Blek le Rat: For sure I don’t like very much capitalism. I was more radical when I was young than I am now. Before we could try to believe in socialism but with an experience of living in the socialism I have to agree that there is not a huge difference between capitalism and socialism. The function of capitalism in today’s art world is the same since one hundred years now.  It works with galleries and the galleries work with collectors and other galleries. The selling price of an artist is determined by the price the artist makes in the auction sell. Usually a gallery will double the price of the auction sell because they consider that they have a lot more of overheads which is true. And it was exactly the same scheme 100 years ago. Nothing changed…

qi peng: Is this image a critique of the American market system?

Blek le Rat: No, not really but if you understand this image like that I do not see any problem. This is one of the reasons I love street art the same image can be interpreted differently. It depends the people and the environment where the image is showed.

qi peng: Is this image your self-portrait?

Blek le Rat: Yes.

qi peng: In what ways are you manifesting your French background and cultural values?

Blek le Rat: I was born French six year after the second world war and of course my background and my culture are reflected in my work. All my youth I listened people talking about the war against the German and it is mostly the reason I have a kind of obsession with soldiers, mass murder, wars and weapons. But I have to say that I was a lot influenced by the American and British culture during my youth. When I was Twenty I was fascinated by USA and all underground culture coming from USA.

qi peng: In what ways do you consider yourself a citizen of the world, like the Socrates (who is similar to myself) described himself?

Blek le Rat: Because as I said before my main culture is French but I was educated by a Chinese mother and the culture which influenced me as much was the US and British culture.

qi peng: What direction do you think that Western civilization is heading for in the future?

Blek le Rat: I hope women will be in power all over the worldr very soon and it will be the best thing for us that could happened. I mean I believe that if women are in power, I really doubt that they will send their children in war and we will live in peace with new concept of living because women are the future of men.

qi peng: What is your most controversial piece that has garnered much attention for its driving concept(s)?

Blek le Rat: Probably the David with kalashnokoff.

qi peng: Why did the audience respond to that particular work either positively or negatively?

Blek le Rat: Both of them.

qi peng: What are some music, artists, places, books, movies, or cultural artifacts that you wish to recommend fans of your work and the readers of the column?

Blek le Rat: I will recommend a French writer called Louis Ferdinand Celine (“In this world we spent our time killing or adoring, or both together. ‘I hate you! I adore you!’ We keep going, we fuel and refuel, we pass on our life to a biped of the next century, with frenzy, or any cost, as if it were the greatest of pleasures to perpetuate ourselves, as if, when all’s said and done, it would make us immortal. One way or another, kissing is as indispensable as scratching.” (from Journey to the End of the Night))

The French Hip Hop group “[Supreme] NTM” and all Stanley Kubrick‘s movies. I recommend also a British artist named Slinkachu. I love his work!

qi peng: In what ways do these things inspire your own artwork?

Blek le Rat: They give me the strength to continue my work otherwise I would stop.

qi peng: How do you manage to balance time between working within the streets and your regular studio time in the castle?

Blek le Rat: I could live anywhere and I lived for ten years in 129 square foot room. I am living now in an huge house but only in three rooms. The space where I am living does not interfere in my current life and I have not to manage it.

qi peng: How does the training in architecture and painting impact the way you perceive the world view and execute the artworks accordingly?

Blek le Rat: My studies in architecture opened my eyes about my environment and the fact that that environment is plannified by urbanists and architects. I think Fine arts and architecture studies combined was a springboard to street art.

qi peng: How do you slide in the black humor within a certain piece so well?

Blek le Rat: Because I am more pessimistic than optimistic in my life. As we use to say In France I see the bottle half empty when the others see the bottle half full.

qi peng: Do you appreciate rap music much at all?

Blek le Rat: Yes I do.

qi peng: Why would you surmise that so many graffiti and street artists are engulfed by the hip-hop culture?

Blek le Rat: Because it is  the most important culture nowaydays. But in other hand I know that culture depends a lot from the fashion and young people. When the new generation will come they will sweep Hip hop culture in few months to replace it with a new way of life.

qi peng: Are there any artists that you would like to collaborate with and if so, why?

Blek le Rat: Unfortunately they are all dead.

qi peng: In what ways do you try to act playfully with the traditions of art history mashed up with the traditions of street art?

Blek le Rat: Yes it is true that I try to combined a lot tradition of art and street art. I think it is because I used to be a teacher for a while in my youth and i like to talk about the past and traditions and I take graffiti art like a way to educate the others in saying “It is importatnt for us to appreciate images done by other artist from the past.

qi peng: Is the historical context often hard to approach, considering that artists do not want to appear moralizing or didactic?

Blek le Rat: Yes I understand it could be hard as an approach but frankly I do not listen what the others artists think. I do not like very much the artists in generally and I have only few artists as friends.

qi peng: How do street artists attempt to convey their passions for certain things or the joy of life?

Blek le Rat: This is all what street art is about. It is the only art that provides a total freedom, liberty if you like. You can share your passion anonymously without having art critics in your back.

qi peng: What is your opinion on some of the current events which occurred in France such as the immigration trends, the street riots, and the new political leadership under Sarkozy?

Blek le Rat: Streets riots are so current here in France that no one pays attention on them. They make a street riots for nothing and everybody can organize street riots just because he is angry against his neighbor. In my opinion streets riot does not mean anything anymore.

Immigration is another thing and a more serious problem of people who think that life is better here in Europe. It is certainly true that life is better here in Europe than living in a country in war.

qi peng: Do you ever encounter any friction within the art or cultural worlds with some of your views in life?

Blek le Rat: I don’t have any relation with the art or cultural world. I never met them because I never go to parties, opening galleries, especially in France.

qi peng: Why do supposed liberals often act close-minded towards others who may not share those views?

Blek le Rat: I think it is difficult for anybody to accept someone else’s opinion, especially when it comes to politic.

qi peng: You have protested war in many of your images. Why is war one of the major problems within the modern day world?

Blek le Rat: Yes I did, since I was born in 1951 it was a war somewhere in the world. I have never lived in a world in peace since I was born and it starts to make me crazy.

qi peng: Do you feel that street art can have a positive impact in providing a political forum for the average citizen to discuss issues?

Blek le Rat: I am not sure it has a huge impact but at least it proves that some people are tired of making war all the time.

qi peng: You have done quite a few pieces involving spray paint on canvas. What are the challenges that you face being able to render the image well and concisely on the support?

Blek le Rat: Almost 30 years of stenciling.

qi peng: How do you choose certain colors as such in the piece “On the Run” where you feature a black long-distance runner on a red background?

Blek le Rat: I love the colour black, white and red. Black is my favorite white is its contrast and red is the luck.

qi peng: What are some of your dreams that you hope to fulfill within the future?

Blek le Rat: I don’t have dreams anymore for the future. I know that things evolve slightly in time.

qi peng: What ethical or cultural responsibilities do street artists have from generation to generation, considering that you have been cited by Banksy as being his artistic “father?”

Blek le Rat: I’ll think it is important for an artist to be considered as someone who brought something new and who influenced his contemporary it is an accomplishment for an artist.

qi peng: Does having social rules often allow a certain playfulness to enter our souls to remind us of our own humanity?

Blek le Rat: [no answer]

qi peng: Are there any motifs or new images that your fans will need to be on the watch for in the streets?

Blek le Rat: If I told them there would be less fun.

qi peng: Is there anything else that you would like to share with your readers here?

Blek le Rat: Thank you for spending some time with me.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at qipengart@gmail.com
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Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 2:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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