We try and catch the elusive and controversial artist as he unveils new works which borrow from Basquiat, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, and, of course, Bansky
Interviewing Mr Brainwash isn’t easy. Our meeting in-person at Maddox Gallery – where the artist’s latest show Keep Smiling is currently exhibited – is cancelled last minute. When we do make contact, it’s over the phone and cross-continent (we talk as Mr Brainwash drives through France). In you go with questions pinned to the long-standing accusations of copyright he now faces and out you come with a fragmentary monologue that deflects fact in favour of something a little less tangible. He’s a difficult man to catch and his inconclusive language fuels ambiguity. But, it’s this elusive behaviour that makes Mr Brainwash (Thierry Guetta by birth) interesting.
Best known for appropriating established works by other artists such as Picasso, Basquiat, and Matisse – just see who you can spot in the gallery of works above – Mr Brainwash’s work is incredibly divisive. On the one hand viewers are often appalled by his irreverent appropriation; an unparalleled ability to alter traditional impressionist style paintings and historical portraits by adding contemporary iconography, and then selling them for tens of thousands of dollars. On the other, devotees love that about him. As a result, he encourages a near-obsessive loyalty amongst fans, for a body of work so controversial that Banksy made an Academy Award-nominated documentary about it.
And, it was this, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), that saw Mr Brainwash, the artist and the pseudonym, rise to fame. The story goes, that Banksy was appalled by a movie Mr Brainwash was working on, and so fascinated by the artist, that he turned the camera on him, only to be blindsided when Mr Brainwash ripped off his style. This instance wasn’t isolated. Over the last 12 years, Mr Brainwash has been linked to cases of infringement. Do you believe in artistic differentiation and boundaries, I ask? “I’m looking at the past and I’m taking from the past, but I’m also bringing something new back and trying to give it another way of being. Art for me is all about freedom, that freedom of expression. I don’t feel that with art there is any boundary”. Cue: art world division.
Today, this discordant approach is being used as a point of focus for Keep Smiling. Now open at London’s Maddox Gallery, the press release notes read: “Classical paintings are playfully transformed while ornate mirrors are struck with flashes of neon and vibrant painted messages”. Using the works of Jeff Koons, Keith Haring's, Jean Michel Basquiat and more as jump-off points, Mr Brainwash aims to “subvert these classic images with an injection of contemporary humour and commentary”.
Below, we try to get inside the self-professed ‘brainwashed’ mind of this artist, to find out if he thinks originality is ever essential to good art.
“Art for me is all about freedom, that freedom of expression. I don't feel that with art there is any boundary” – Mr Brainwash
How did Keep Smiling and the collaboration with Maddox Gallery come about?
Mr Brainwash: It is something I’ve been working on for the last 10-years, but I hadn’t ever put it together as one. When I met the team at Maddox Gallery it came to life. I wanted to bring this to London, it felt like the right city and the right culture. London is a country like no other, you do things differently here, like no one else has. You always do what you want. Everything felt like the right fit, the space, the city, the gallery - the perfect moment at the perfect time. I had created most of these works by 2008, so for me, the show was about moving on, moving in a new direction and letting go. Letting everything out.
The exhibition title has such positive connotations. Is there an undercurrent of irony here, or is this a personal mantra?
Mr Brainwash: I’m talking to everyone. Everyone. It’s not just keep smiling, it’s enjoy your life and be happy. The exhibition jumps between the past and the present and finding that sense of happiness between the two states.
Your work seems to highlight a contrast between past and present, old and new. Is history important to you?
Mr Brainwash: Of course, I always want to approach older works with love, I do it out of love. But I am brainwashed. It’s all about being brainwashed. I’m looking at the past and I’m taking from the past, but I’m also bringing something new back and trying to give it another way of being. It’s impossible to get hold of a Basquiat, Picasso or Matisse, we rarely see them. I’m creating a wave of artwork that is bringing these works back in a different way. It’s always with the blink of an eye and with appreciation and respect.
This concept of being brainwashed is at the backbone of all your work, can you talk to us about this in more detail?
Mr Brainwash: I feel like the world is brainwashed. We are reading the magazines, trying to get the Gucci jeans, you know it’s all about brainwashing. Trying to know something, trying to do something all of the time.
Do you believe in artistic differentiation and boundaries?
Mr Brainwash: For me, art is all about that freedom, that freedom of expression. It is a time and a moment where you are doing something that you love, and I don’t feel that with art there is any boundary. I always approach my work positively and without disrespecting. My work is just what a felt in the blink of an eye.