High Graffiti

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

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

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.

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