Direction artistique : Jacqueline Rabouan Moussion
Empire of the Signatures
By Hugo Vitrani
“As time went on, I realized that an artist's name
was a large part of what it meant to be an artist.”
Since the emergence of cave art, executed under pressure in the dim light of caves and the stars, people have been taggers. From engravings that lacerate the landscape of Pompeii to the data of our IP addresses that designate our digital identities, via the signatures of the soldiers of Charles V, the character Kilroy with his big nose painted by American GIs, NICOLA engraved by 18th century writer Restif de la Bretonne on the stones of Paris, the scribblings of the insane and prisoners, those of hobos who traced their monikers - vagabonds and autobiographers - in the bowels of the mechanisms of freight trains, those of the cholo graffiti that marked the Chicano territories in the slums of Los Angeles, and those of tourists who are forever disfiguring works, ancient ruins, cacti and other anonymous surfaces, people write their name to fly in the face of time. Then the signature becomes self-portrait.
Up against the wall you find the draftsman and the satyr, to paraphrase Robert Desnos. The wall is not an innocent surface. It belongs to “the ‘fools’, the ‘misfits’, the ‘rebels’, the ‘simple’, to all those who have a big heart. “It is the truant’s blackboard,” wrote Brassai, the French photographer of Hungarian origin who photographed the graffiti of Paris from 1930, encouraging the public to develop an ‘untamed’ eye, to undermine the very idea of he Fine Arts. He added, “To engrave your name, your love, a date, on the wall of a building, this ‘vandalism’ cannot be explained solely by the need of destruction, but rather the survival instinct of all those unable to erect pyramids and cathedrals to leave their name to posterity.” It was this survival instinct and the craving for freedom outside the law that motivated the pioneers of New York graffiti in the late 1970s to evangelize the subway and the city walls with a new belief: the ‘religion of the name’,* which still today permeates the punishment-paintings of JonOne.
Between two jump rope exercises to prepare for a friendly boxing match in his workshop-turned-ring, JonOne – painter-boxer who hits his canvases with color – explains: “My painting is physical, in action: there’s punch to it. It’s related to the the energy of the colors I saw on the painted trains in New York, like a flash of paint in the city. In the 1980s the subway was like a gallery that crossed the city. My style is related to this movement and the speed of painting. I like that people are destabilized and unbalanced in front of my paintings. When painting, I spit out the rage that’s in me.” Rage of the street, of painting (from Abstract Expressionism to graffiti in its less popular version: the tag), of origins (the mysterious Santo Domingo, the America of the crack years, the alternative Paris of the 1990s). Since the 1980s, the artist has emancipated himself from the classic canons of graffiti to turn to abstraction. Even when he saturates his paintings with tags now painted in oil – playing with the notions of high and low brow – JonOne summons the hardcore energy that comes from vandalism. He asserts: “It’s not what’s written that’s important in my work: writing, letters, it’s a pretext to be able to move on to another stage: light, color, energy, the movement of the body. Behind my name you find my past, my present and my future.”
Titian, Poussin, Picasso, RMUTT1917, O'clock: these names are also signatures. In her essay Graffitis - Inscrire Son Nom à Rome [Graffiti - Inscribing One’s Name in Rome], Charlotte Guichard analyzes: “Putting one’s name on the canvas is a practice that developed from the Renaissance, and became commonplace, almost conventional, at the end of the 18th century. The signature then found its place at the bottom of the painting, in cursive letters, valorizing the artist's name and its presence on the canvas: is it the same thing to sign outside the frame, on a wall, near an admired fresco, or in ancient ruins? Since Vasari, in the modern period, the artist's own name has been invested with poetic, historical and economic value; it is also the mark of the author and of authenticity.” Whereas an artist like Josh Smith imposes his ‘name-paintings’ with XXL paintings, painting and repeating his name by eradicating any style in the letters, JonOne's signatures are stylized — a prerequisite of ‘handstyle’ mastery – and superimposed to the point of becoming abstract, becoming fragments of energy, gestures marked by the authenticity of the journey of the artist who had for art school the underground whirlwind of New York in the 1980s.
A time when street painting shook the history of art, and of which here is a testimony written by Norman Mailer published in the magazine Esquire in May 1974: “So it was probably not a movement designed to cover the world so much as an excrescence of an excrescence. Slum populations chilled on one side by the bleakness of modern design, and brain-cooked on the other by comic strips and TV ads with zooming letters, even brain-cooked by politicians whose ego is a virtue – I am here to help my nation – brained by the big beautiful numbers on the yard markers on football fields, by the whip of the capital letters in the names of the products, and gut-picked by the sound of rock and soul screaming up into the voodoo of the the firmament with the shriek of the performer’s insides coiling like neon letters in the blue satanic light, yes, all the escrescence of the higways and the fuorescent wonderlands of every Las Vegas sign frying through the Iowa and New Jersey night, all the stomach-tightening nitty-gritty of trying to learn how to spell was in the wrting, every assault on the psyche as the trains came slamming in. Maybe it was no more than a movement which looked to take some of the excrescence left within and paint it out upon the world, no more than a species of collective therapy of grace exhibited under pressure in the act of voiding waste, maybe it was a movement which never dreamt of painting over the blank and empty modern world, but the authority of the city reacted as if the city itself might be in greater peril from graffiti than from junk, and a war had gone on, more and more implacable on the side of the authority with every legal and psychological weed killer on full employ until the graffiti of New York was defoliated, cicatrized, Vietnamized.”
A ‘Tout-Monde’ (‘One-World’) [*NB this a term coined by philosopher Edouard Glissant] artist, JonOne’s paintings stretch origins and time: from the beginnings of New-York Hip Hop and Subway Art to the renewal of the movement in Paris, notably in the heart of the legendary terrain of the Stalingrad quarter, from walls to canvas, from his first studio in the Hopital Ephémère squat, where agnès b had discovered him, to the one he now occupies in the Lilas quarter... Outside the frame, always moving and hands dirty, JonOne composes his paintings freestyle. He projects his paint so that it becomes material (sometimes rough as a ruined wall) and mixes the colors to obtain new luminous vibrations. So behind his paintings currently exhibited at the Fondation Clément, which is presenting a retrospective of the artist, we find this famous “I was here”, the manifestation of anonymous graffiti the world over. “I was there”: a cry tinged with the wild colors of the night and spat in our faces, but that John Andrew Perello has now been conjugating for 30 years.