Art of the People

To some it must seem like a heady transition propelled by Banksy. But the journey street art made from the painted wall, to graffiti, to stencil and finally established galleries has been a slow process steeped in history. In London as in New York and Paris, street art is now ubiquitous, but artists continue to push the boundaries of what it can offer, becoming increasingly aware of its history and the legends that came before them.

One such artist is C215 aka Christian Guémy. It’s not very often you hear a street artist uttering romantic painters like Delacroix along with contemporary moderns such as the late Lucien Freud and Yves Klein under the same breath. But then the French artist is unlike many. He likes to paint religious icons on abandoned street corners and has an MA in Art History and another in Renaissance History. His works are easily recognisable featuring highly detailed stencilling of everyday people yet littered with classical references.
“I studied art history because I loved art and wanted to understand as much as I could about its evolution”, explains C215. “The old masters chose a paintbrush because it was the best tools of their time”, he says. “I smile by guessing most of them would do graffiti if not stencils right now. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born.”

Ernest Pignon Ernest, “Extases”, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire

One of C215’s great icons is the French Street artist Pignon Ernest, considered to be the founder of street art in France. In the 70s he lined the stairs of the Sacre Coeur with silkscreen prints depicting human corpses.
“I am not skilled enough to describe his works in the way it deserves. Pignon is a real political artist; he was committed to the communist party. He completely created the rules of modern street art in the 70’s and 80’s, and the works of Blek Le Rat who was his early admirer and whose works would not exist without him. I could say the same for WK Interact.”

The starting point of C215’s works are firmly rooted in seeking unusual backgrounds created by the most common of things. He sometimes paints on old classic book covers and magazines leaving the original imagery to come through his stencilled work, creating a layered contrast.
“I like objects and textures instead of blank spaces to fill. This is really more interesting than using a canvas. You can interact with the background. Dran is a reference for this kind of process, usually doing it with commercial cardboard packages. I have the same habit in the streets, working into textures instead of white walls.”

“I began graffiti and tagging at 14, street art at 30, and began using stencils at 32.
Before the age of 20 I was a stupid kid from a very popular family doing, like many teenagers, as many bullshit things as he could to escape his reality, but this period has no importance anymore. Painting has been a new life for me,” he says.
His stencils are as likely to be seen in the streets of Casablanca, New Delhi and Dakar in Senegal as they are in London, having travelled expansively throughout Europe and visiting parts of Asia and Africa.
“I believe in a global cultural influence rather than just a few references guiding your inspiration,” he says. “You have to travel to experience new contexts. Most street artists put art in the streets of Western capitals because there is money, galleries and collectors there. It is sometimes good to do things for the sake of art. Graffiti consists in leaving tracks behind you, anywhere you go.”
He adds: “graffiti has a certain ‘art of being absent’, your works left behind saying you were here, but you’ve gone”.

These are extracts from a feature in Spindle Magazine. The full interview can be read in issue 5 of Spindle magazine out now.

First Image “Guillotine” Spray paint on antique paper cutter machine. Based on Caravaggio’s Judith and Olofern