"A touch of beauty"

Nylig var vi så heldige å komme i kontakt med kunstneren johnxc (hjemmeside/Twitter), som blant annet fikk Jacob Weidemanns minnestipend tidligere i år. Du kan se noen av verkene hans i Bergen her. Vi stilte ham noen spørsmål, og han var hyggelig nok til å svare både i form av ord og bilder. Resultatet ser du under.

Fra skisseboken.

What’s your backstory? You have an english name and write in english, but most of your work seems to be made in Norway. Could you give me some biographical data?

Ok! I grew up in North West of England and I met a Norwegian girl.

So you brought your artistry with you from England to Norway? How long have you been staying here now?

Yes, I guess. It just seems to follow me around. I can’t shake it. I’m not a big biography fan, as far as «me» is concerned. I mean, there’s no name on these pictures – it’s not about me. That’s a distraction from what you are seeing. When I look at a picture I look at the picture.

You seem to be one of very few street artists that won’t sign his works. Was that intentional from the start? The need to be recognized for one’s work is very human after all.

Is it? What about teachers or steelworkers? They don’t plaster their name over everything. Take a trip to the British Museum and you’ll see a world of stunning art by «artist unknown». If you take a look at the history of art you just don’t see that many signatures. If every mark is to be integral to a work, then any marks made in the bottom right corner has to be integral as well.
Writing your name, that’s just a game, and I’m not interested in playing that game. I don’t want to be a logo. How does writing your name on something alter the value of the work? Recognition is important, but it can’t be a reason to do something, can it? Recognition is an outward looking action. Why do you write your blog?

I can see your point. I try to keep Mot Veggen disconnected from myself, as it’s about other things than me personally. The vanity is still there I’m afraid, just connected to the blog instead of me as a person.

Hey, who isn’t a bit vain? As you say, «it’s about other things» and knowing that.

But your art has quite a distinct style, so even without a signature people will be able to tell «oh yeah, there’s that guy again». The only difference is that they won’t have a name to pin it to.
But talking about your style, how do you go about making these portraits that have been popping up in Bergen and the rest of the west coast?

Tare a friend of mine sent me this Glop pen. It’s a drip tagging pen, and honestly, you can’t believe how much fun one pen can be.
Anyhow, I like a lot of stuff, but especially when it shows the human hand. Like I’d rather see a good throw-up than a piece – it shows a raw quality. I had been playing with other ways of working and then these pens just made me want to get back to my roots and draw. They’re drawings, essentially.
At the moment I’m messing with an iPad. I’ll use whatever I think best to get the visual effect I want, and style plays into that too.

It’s interesting to hear you say you’ve been working with an iPad lately. The artist David Hockney is another artist who has started to both sketch and draw on the iPad (even going so far as having his suit jackets altered so the inner pocket will fit the tablet).

That’s so funny, you’ve gotta love that guy.

Do you make your works on-site or at home like a regular paste-up?

I have no set pattern, but these portraits mostly start from a traditional sketch. Some pieces are done purely by hand, but with others, especially multiples, I’ll project the original drawing and make a basic outline, then finish the work off by eye, looking at a photo or a previous piece. Basically it saves time. You don’t need any preparatory lines (although they can be nice if you want them), and it keeps each piece unique.
Most of my stuff is made in the studio, but it does depend on what opportunities I have. If I can make a drawing directly on the wall, then I will. But on most walls you don’t have two to six hours, so a paste-up is a great alternative. You can keep your work with you and *bang* you see a spot and it’s up.
Once it’s on the wall I may need to add to or re-work them a bit. Paste-up gives you something else. The way they distress the way writers use them – it’s all interesting.
"Here's a guy I met on the street the other week."
JohnXC møter personer på gaten, tar bilder av dem og bruker dem i kunsten.

I see you’re using some kind of newspaper or magazine as a backdrop for your paste-ups. Do you try to find pages fitting for the subject matter in your painting, or is it just random?

The Magazine is Phaidon’s Creamier, a contemporary arts publication, and it’s use is very intentional. I’m kind of working in a storylike way (even though I’m not telling a story) and Creamier is grabbed and dropped into it. I do consider the background, but it’s not primary. Its true function is as a character within the subject. 
So, for me, the art magazine is working as the voice of Marie Antoinette when she is said to have said "Let them eat cake!" and this is what "high" art is saying to us. Art within the institution of art has become an object of fear to most people. There’s something very wrong about that. I see this moment as a pre-revolutionary moment (nonviolent), and art is due for a renaisssance: An art that is for everybody.
Eksempel på et "utebilde", laget med magasinet Phaidon's Creamier som bakgrunn.

Street art seems to be more accessible to people than «high art». What are your thoughts on street art in museums or galleries?

The issue isn’t really about art in the street vs. art in the galleries. Essentially the issue is about a way of looking at things. You say street art seems more accessible, this isn’t simply about where it’s placed, but how it’s being 'seen'. People look at art in the street differently than in a fine arts gallery. Fine art primarily serves an intellectual disinterest: When you enter a gallery, there is a pressure to understand the artwork or to be able to meditate over it somehow. What street art can do is to open up this narrow usage.
Art in the streets doesn’t demand that you enter into it, or positioning itself as a thing beyond you. The work isn’t in itself precious, but instead it’s the viewer who takes this place. There is a much broader social equality in it.
What is crucial within street art is that it puts into play values that are fundamentally missing in «high» art. If you change the way you see something, you change the way you act towards that thing.

Interesting thoughts. But I’m still curious as to how you regard street art in museums and galleries. Does it become something else when you remove it from the street?

What are your thoughts on it?

I don’t quite know how to think about it. A big part of street art as I see it is the element of surprise and interaction with the surroundings in the street. But at the same time I have a couple of canvases hanging on my own walls that I love. I guess it depends on what you think street art is.

I’m having a difficult time wrapping my head around that question. The question kind of creates segregation. I’m not sure street art is involved in a polemic argument. I like the wall-to-wall inclusive nature of street art – both that and the things you mention are some of its qualities.
The gallery is an important arena. Its historical problem is its exclusivity. For me, street art brings art into a, let’s say, libertarian form. It could serve as an end to the autocratic model gallery art is in now. When we can, we should jump the gallery.

To change the subject completely, I’m wondering about how you choose your subjects. I see you’ve made three portraits of the street artist Brad Downey in Bergen – why did you decide on that?

Have I done three Brads in Bergen? Two near Konsertpaleet and…?

I thought the nice man in blue from the area around Vågsbunnen was Brad also? But I could be mistaken.

Ok, there are just two Brads, and with the tags. You just had me worrying. I’ve been doing this guy I call the Prince of Grecia, the rococo-haired Brad is a version of him, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember doing Grecia in Bergen.

So if the Blue Boy isn’t Brad, who is it?

I don’t know who he is. He’s a found image. I’m making drawings of people I know; people I happen to meet in the street and photograph; and from existing images I think I can do something with.

But why Brad?

The Brad portraits are a bit accidental and fun. He’s doing a book of portraits of him made by other artists, and asked me to contribute (which is kind of nice, since he has some big time names going on in this book. You’ll be reading through it and going «oh yeah, oh yeah», and then you’ll get to my contribution and you’ll be going «who the flyin F is that?»).
The location is because I wanted the portrait to have a stronger connection to a part of who Brad is. I thought it was funny, and he’s fun. I was working in this style already when I decided to include Brad’s portrait into part of what I’m doing.

Is there any connection between Brad and the locations where you’ve put up his portrait?

There is a connection in that the two Brad pieces are next to his very silly Brad tags which you can find near them. But in general the Creamier work I’m doing, its mainly a matter of finding spots I thinks good and I can give something to. I like best to do that in Hordaland.

Why Hordaland?

The real reason is because I want to try to be involved in building a potential for "common" people to have a relationship to art, one which they feel is giving something to them, one that adds a certain value to our day-to-day. To do this means a fidelity to your locale. Through being local you come to make an Art which plays into our collective sense. This is hard, as it seems artists are meant to look beyond their own borders, to an event, exhibition or biennale in this city, that country... It's nice to have work in Berlin or wherever, it's great and has its place, but this is absolutely secondary. I don't want to be a gypsy artist, I don't want to always be a curious stranger, I don't want art to be that either.

Finally, do you have a dream project? Either an image or a place you’d love to work with?

There are a few guys that it would be nice to work with at some time. I’d like to do something with Gaia maybe, and i think Iemza would be fun. I’ve been thinking of inviting him over.
You know, I think I’m happy working the project I’m doing – a belief that I’m working towards an «event». Is that a bit boring? I like the sense of anticipation that something new is always around the corner. I’m putting my stuff out there, around the area where I’m living.
I did this piece just before the summer on the roof of a home for old people. A woman told me she drove past it with her daughter on the way to school, and her daughter said the piece made her think of the people inside. For me, that’s just a touch of beauty. The piece, it encouraged something. If street art can somehow allow for us to add value to how we see the world and involve ourselves with it, then, for now, I can’t think of anything better than that.
I’m happy trying to try.