Tuesday, 23 April 2013

10 Questions Column: French Street Artist C215

Christian Guémy photographed by Andreas Romagnoli in front of one his works inspired by Caravaggio at his new exhibition in Rome. The face in the painting is a self-portrait.

French Street Artist C215, real name Christian Guémy, answers Jeanne-Marie Cilento’s 10 Questions about his extraordinary life, his exhibition now showing at Wunderkammern gallery in Rome and the new book C215 by Sabina de Gregori. Andreas Romagnoli did an exclusive photo shoot with the artist just before his show opened.

CHRISTIAN Guémy is one of the most poetic and successful artists who have contributed to the flourishing world of international Street Art. His evocative portraits of the lost, the dispossessed and the joyous stare out from walls of cities from Paris to New Delhi and London to Istanbul. And his work has come in from the cold as purely "outsider" art and now hangs in major art galleries in many far-flung countries including France, the United States, Spain, Brazil and Russia.

The artist finds it a strange anomaly that while he is still arrested by police for creating street art, his work is at the same time sought after by galleries and collectors. But he says his aim with his public art works is always to choose spaces and walls where his creations add drama and interest to the urban contexts - not deface them.

Guémy himself is no street urchin but a highly-educated artist well aware of his role within the wider art world. He earned a degree in architecture history and theory after having first studied economics, and then went on to receive a PhD in Art History. 

Beginning his artistic career in 2005, Guémy developed his own style mainly using stencils. While he started in black and white, his current work uses brilliant colour. Guémy likes to depict people on the social fringes in inner urban contexts: both the homeless and disenfranchised and the young and free. He is inspired by Caravaggio's voluptuous expressivity and interested in depicting people's raw emotions. 

Guémy's exhibition in Rome examines guilt, the necessity of reflecting on the historical past and taking responsibility for our actions.

1. What inspired the themes of your new exhibition Mea Culpa in Rome?
I based my show on several subjects : the violence and guiltiness in the Catholic iconography through Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi, homeless people that I turned into modern icons and cats that could be related to Rome but also superstition.

There is also a section about power and megalomania, with a few comments on dictatorship linked to guiltiness and religion. When preparing the show six months ago, I had no idea the pope would resign a few days before the opening of my show in Rome.

Being an artist involves making decisions every day. Some decisions effect your career, some artworks make a big impact on you. When preparing the show, for example, painting Pacelli and Hitler together on the same artwork is a strong decision. I wanted in that case to show the affinity between the last pope and Nazi Germany during the war. Maybe I was wrong but I assume my responsibility.

2. Your portraits of people have an extraordinary power in the eyes, they speak to the viewer. What role do portraits of people play in the wider context of your art work and do you paint more “traditional” portraits now of people who come to sit for you specially?
I get commissions indeed, even if I don't consider myself only as a portraitist, but rather a contemporary artist working on identity. My portraits, when placed in the streets, aim at catching attention and raising emotion. I hope the viewer questions himself to ask "who is that person?". Anonymous faces leave the possibility for identification.

3. How did the moniker “C215” become your famous signature?
This moniker came by accident, and despite giving many different explanations for it, it has no real meaning. I used it the first time as a poet, for my first poetry book. I wanted a modern nickname, abstract and industrial, corresponding to our period.

4. How has Caravaggio influenced your work and do you see parallels in his life and work to your own? 
He's a real master of chiaroscuro and I've been compared to him in that way. We both turned anonymous and marginal people into icons, and he was a wanderer as I am, leaving artworks behind him as I do. Maybe we are crazy, but as a real painting genius, I wonder how skilled Caravaggio would have been with a spray can.

5. Do you do sketches first or directly paint outdoors for your street art?
I use no computer, and cut stencils everyday, in the way other people draw. My process is really basic.

6. When you began your artistic path in 2005 you began with stencils and working in black and white and now you use a lot of vivid colour. What inspires you for your recent works?
I like to evolve and make my work more and more complex. Maybe I have an easier life now, and less concerns, so it became natural to use more colours year after year, in the same way my subjects became less heavy. Colour, as well as the subject, always have to be contextual, and what I do is mainly self-expression.

7. Is there a street art community here in Rome and will you collaborate again with NUfactory?
The street art community in Rome is quite new, so it will take time to speak about a proper scene. Sten and Lex are I think the main representatives of the movement in Rome: they do original art and began a long time ago. I am happy they get the full credit for the birth of street art in Roma.

When I painted here for the first time in 2008 they were the only street artists we could find in the city. It was beautiful to find such an ancient and artistic city - almost virgin of any street art. Street art became more fashionable and then more people did it, especially after 2010. I worked for the first time with NUfactory in 2010 for the poster festival Outdoor in Garbatella. Collaborating again with them on a wall in Rome was really easy.

8. How did Sabina de Gregori’s new book C215 come to fruition?
This book came as a conclusion to the five years I spent back and forth to paint in Italy, especially in Rome and Milano.

9. Do you think you will continue as a street artist or create more works in a studio?
I am getting older, but I will continue to paint in the streets as long as my legs allow me to do it. I consider studio work and the streets as very different. The street art being more spontaneous, while studio works need more time. Basically both sides are equally important, the first part being ephemeral while studio works are made to last "forever". What is important is to do quality artworks, in the studio or outside.

10. Are you happy your daughter Nina is interested in creating Street Art too?
My daughter is ten years old, but she is already able to cut a stencil and paint. But it's hard to say she is an artist now: she can become whatever she wants. I decided to paint portraits in the streets for her and I wanted to paint her portrait next to her house and school when her mother and myself got separated. I guess she's rather proud now and conscious of what I do.

Christian Guémy's exhibition is at the Wunderkammern Gallery 124 Via Gabrio Serbelloni Rome until May 24th. It is open Wednesday to Saturday from 5-8pm or by appointment +39 349 811 2973 www.wunderkammern.net


Click on pictures for full-screen slideshow
 Untitled VI 2013 Lightbox, neon, wood, glass, stained glass, lead strips and spray paint 59.5x68.5cm
Christian Guémy working on a stencil at the Wunderkammern Gallery in Rome
 Untitled III 2013 Lightbox, neon, wood, stained glass, lead and spray paint 59.5x68.5cm 
The artist reading from the new book C215 by Sabina di Gregori 
Untitled IV 2013 Lightbox neon, wood, stained glass, traditional lead strips, spray paint 68.5x59.5cm
Untitled VII 2013  Lightbox, neon, wood, stained glass, traditional lead strips and spray paint 59.5x68.5cm 
Untitled VIII 2103 Lightbox neon, wood, stained glass, traditional lead strips and spray paint 59.5x68.5cm
Untitled 2013 Lightbox, neon, wood, stained glass, lead and spray paint 68.5 x 59.5cm
 C215 sits next to his work inspired by Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes

Davide 2013  Spray paint on wood 68x96cm

Frutta 2013 Spray paint on original Italian mail box 52x8 x27cm

C215's show Mea Culpa in Rome
Touch Faith 2013 Spray paint on metal can (framed) 25.4x30.5x8.5 
The opening night of C215's exhibition in Rome

Gatto II 2013 spray paint on an original Italian mail box 48x64x27cm 
Gatto III 2013 Spray paint on plastic sheet (framed) 39.3x34.2cm
C215 created this work on a wall in Rome on the night before his show opened in Via Gabbrio Serbelloni at the Wunderkammern Gallery
C215's works exhibited at his new show in Rome

Staring 2013 Spray paint on wood 75.2x166.5cm
Bacchus 2013 Spray paint on metal 59.5x100cm
Favelo 2013 Spray paint on wooden door 106 x100cm

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