When you think of fugitive urban art -- clandestine work scrawled, spray-painted, or postered on city surfaces -- you naturally think of the graffiti subculture or cheeky political image-makers like Britain's Banksy, who decorates London with rocket-loaded American helicopters and women clutching bombs in autoerotic embraces. You don't think of a 64-year-old Frenchman steeped in the Old Masters, with draftsmanship that's pure 19th century, and whose self-declared goal is 'to solve certain very important problems concerning the insertion of an image in a real space.'
Ernest Pignon-Ernest, based in Paris, is a one-of-a-kind artist for whom the street is a sculptural setting onto which he attaches careful, beautiful charcoal drawings and silkscreen posters -- without permission. These have ranged from images of the notorious visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud, coat over his shoulder, haunting the sides of buildings in Paris and his hometown of Charleville, to dramatic figures adapted from Baroque paintings, attached to the crumbling walls of Naples (see www.pignon-ernest.com).
Far from making easy political hits or dropping soup?ons of surrealism into the urban fabric, Pignon-Ernest sees himself as creating a whole new kind of art object. 'I choose a real place,' he told the French online magazine seniorplanet in 2003, 'and slip an image into its interior, usually that of a life-size human being. ... I believe that the insertion of my image into the real world gives that reality the characteristic of an image.'
He calls these juxtapositions -- which he records in photographs -- ready-mades. The first and most famous ready-made, of course, was the spiky wine-bottle dryer that proto_dadaist hero Marcel Duchamp bought in 1914. Just as Duchamp's superficially tongue-in-cheek declaration that this everyday object was a work of art actually transformed it into a brilliantly strange piece of sculpture, so Pignon-Ernest's pictures don't just add art to the street -- they infuse the street with a particular kind of pictorial presence.
If that sounds too theoretical -- that is, too French -- well, you can always sit back and enjoy the beauty, moodiness, and profundity of the work in its context. The Naples posters and drawings (done between 1988 and 1995), and the Naples they highlight, are so evocative of sexuality, death, operatic excess, and archetypal passions that they have inspired ambitious postmodern music -- a suite by French avant-garde jazz mainstay Louis Sclavis (Napoli's Walls, ECM, 2003).
Pignon-Ernest can be as creatively political as any anarchist sticker designer. In 2002 one of his posters appeared here and there in Soweto, the vast Johannesburg ghetto. It alluded to the most famous image from the South African liberation struggle: young Hector Peterson, killed by a police bullet in 1976, lying in the arms of a friend. Pignon-Ernest substituted a woman carrying an emaciated adult man. The message: aids as the new apartheid. He's even made his mark on a younger, more anarchic generation. Pioneer Paris stencil artist Blek, who peppered the French capital with powerful figures of soldiers, mythological figures, and neighborhood heroes before fear of arrest made him retreat to the studio, credits the torn remnants of Pignon-Ernest's Rimbaud project, which he saw as an art student, with 'unblocking' him.
Like large-scale public artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Pignon-Ernest exhibits regularly and uses the proceeds from sales of his preparatory drawings to fund his forays. He also does stage decor; his most recent project is a set for the Monte-Carlo Ballet's production of Le Songe (Dream), opening in Tokyo in July. But then again, for this dramatic and elusive artist, the whole urban world has always been a stage.