This French Artist Appropriates Art History And Propels It Into The Present

Emilee Geist

Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians.” If this is accurate, then L’Atlas’ mind-bending, eye-opening creations are living proof of the era in which we live. His works are influenced by New Realism, an art […]

Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians.” If this is accurate, then L’Atlas’ mind-bending, eye-opening creations are living proof of the era in which we live. His works are influenced by New Realism, an art movement founded in 1960 based on a term coined by French art critic Pierre Restany and whose members included Yves Klein, Arman, Jean Tinguely, Martial Raysse, Jacques Villeglé, César and Niki de Saint Phalle. Although they worked in different visual art disciplines, they perceived a common basis for their work: a method of direct appropriation of reality. They recovered discarded items, using trash, cars, concrete, sheet metal and posters as new mediums, thereby transforming everyday objects into symbols of the revival of post-war consumption, and deliberately excluded “noble” materials such as bronze or stone. “Restany wrote about artists who used the tools of their time to make art history evolve,” L’Atlas says. “He was the first to explain that each era was bound to create new movements in art history, if only by the new techniques that were arriving. For example, in graffiti, it’s the use of spray paint and markers. A whole new esthetic was born because it was linked to tools, so it relates to the technical progress of society. I really like this idea and find it very true since each time you have a new tool like a new spray paint or a new cap, it’s a new series. I think creation is very connected with the technical process, which opens up pictorial fields to me.”

And so you’ll often find L’Atlas aka Jules Dedet Granel cruising the aisles of fine art stores looking for original instruments. Among his latest discoveries are natural sponges that can soak up almost a liter of paint, ideal for large-format pieces. With a single gesture, you can fill up the entire surface, whereas a brush, after making a stroke, you have to dip it again. “It’s in accordance with calligraphy where you do everything in a single breath,” he explains. “With this sponge, you feel powerful, as you have almost the entire tin of paint in your hand. Depending on how you press or what you hold back, you can more or less let it run or leave a mark. It’s endless because there are round sponges that will not make the same mark as square or rectangular ones. The idea is to use things intended for other purposes and that will make the gesture and the result progress through an object or a technique.” Known for painting over canvases that have been composed with strips of tape, which when removed, reveal his stylized signature based on vertical and horizontal lines, L’Atlas has a predilection for paint rollers instead of brushes, which allow him to express a more calligraphic movement, or aerosols with plastic needle caps that give the effect of rain instead of dust.

Viewers get lost in his works, unsure whether to look at the positive or negative spaces, as he tricks the eyes by playing with proportions of emptiness and fullness to confuse them, encrypting the words contained within. We come across mazes where we’re searching for a way out, optical illusions where gradually the letters of his name that has become his trademark materialize or imprints of manhole covers disguised as carved wax seals. Then there’s the giant ground compass he created for the plaza of Paris’ Centre Pompidou, the monumental mural he created on the façade of a 35-meter-tall building in Paris where his logo in geometrical form appears from afar and a one-kilometer-long, letter-filled wall along the motorway in Marseille. His nomadic canvases series sees him use his Rolleiflex to take black-and-white photos of urban streetscapes in which he has randomly placed his paintings while wandering around countless cities, as if to map out the sites he has visited.

Experimentation plays an important role in L’Atlas’ process. An artist-friend, Olivier Swiz, introduced him to a translucent binding gel that he could spread on his canvases after having applied tape, and over which acrylic or spray paint can be added to make reliefs, giving his pieces a textured, layered three-dimensional rather than flat appearance. While still seeking out the best technique to arrive at the correct height, he’s also running tests with a printer, who manages to achieve impressive thicknesses of ink, as the work is passed through the machine multiple times, so that when you approach the surface, you actually see relief. This search for architectural three-dimensionality in his work is not new, having previously produced sculptural canvases, which are at once painting and sculpture, with the painted letters of his logo rising in incremental steps. “I try to make the link between painting and sculptural canvases,” he notes. “As I work around the notion of the labyrinth, I have to go to three dimensions, so my challenge now is to manage to extrude, to create volume with paint and to do projects with architects, as an evolution of my work.”

Although L’Atlas didn’t paint during the imposed confinement in France due to Covid-19, spending the time reading, writing and sleeping, he insists it was a good period as creation requires rest and the crisis will define who has the drive to continue, separating the true artists with a calling who want to make their mark in history from the fake artists for whom art is just a hobby. From a mindset of churning out artwork after artwork, the pandemic allowed him to understand that he needed to slow down, to produce less but to work better, without the distraction of assistants in his studio. “I want to reappropriate my art,” he states. “Sometimes you have a feeling, an intuition of what you want to do, but you need to do it by yourself to get there. You cannot express it through words. Sometimes it may take several years to succeed in creating what you had in mind because you have a precise idea of what you want, but it turns out totally different when you do it. Even if the canvas is good, you know it wasn’t what you were looking for, so you continue to use that process or that tool until you achieve the desired result. It’s a sensitive approach to materials, for example you don’t know why you’re going to add more water or use a damaged brush. It’s just your intuition. After, it is knowledge linked to experience, but which is very complicated to explain. So there is always a part that is inexpressible, but that is ultimately expressed in the painting, which people will feel and has managed to take shape between technique and idea.”

Born in Toulouse in 1978, L’Atlas’ roots may have been in the street in the 1990s when he tagged everything in sight, but his style has since evolved beyond graffiti, as he fuses the optical, abstract, minimalist and geometric art movements with his research on writing and calligraphy to produce an original typography. In the aim of creating a universal pictorial language, he has successfully embedded the history of writing into the history of art and brought optical art inside graffiti. These days, the Paris-based artist – who designed the logo for Rihanna’s fashion brand Fenty, was the face of Jimmy Choo’s Urban Hero fragrance ad campaign, launched capsule collections with Agnès b. who organized his first gallery show, and collaborated with Perrier to decorate 200 million cans and bottles – works not only on canvas and paper, but has been exploring the properties of wood, steel, marble, ceramic and neon. Not one for labels, his creations defy easy categorization and have always served to break down the so-called psychological barriers that exist between various art movements.

This intermingling of worlds and quest for universality led L’Atlas – who chose his pseudonym so that it could be easily understood by all in any language – from France to Morocco, Egypt, Syria, China and Japan to study calligraphy, sigillography and tai chi with masters like Hassan Massoudy, Mounir Al Shaarani and Zhang Aijun, after having dropped out of university at the age of 21, where he had studied art history and archeology. He fuses ideas that may seem diametrically opposed at first, like the combination of gestural abstraction and geometric abstraction, in his series where two distinct universes come face to face, which he credits to encounters with fellow artists. “I want to build bridges between movements and I always thought that superimposing two things – something very gestural and something very geometric – would create an additional optical retinal vibration, which is a way for me to make different art movements dialogue with one another,” he discloses.

After emblazoning his gigantic logo in black and white on the façades of the Chateau de La Valette in north-central France last June in a way that respects the monument’s 19th-century heritage for the third edition of a summer music and street art festival, L’Atlas inscribed the phrase “Underground systems will never die!” on a 170-meter-long exterior wall for the Vienna public transit network. “What I like about outdoor public commissions is the idea of becoming eternal and participating in the history of the city,” he divulges. “It’s good to sell pieces that are going to be in collections, but there is something stronger in the street because you don’t need to pay to see it: it’s free. They’re totally different energies. In the studio, it’s more like meditation. When you’re in the street, it’s like an extreme sport or a war zone: there are a lot of people speaking to you, there’s traffic, the vertical platform lift is really dangerous to use. It’s a performance, something extraordinary that suddenly gives life meaning, something heroic almost because you risk your life. This idea of risking your life to be eternal is a myth that I really like.”

After participating in Art Paris last September at the Grand Palais in Paris, the first art fair worldwide to open since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, where he presented artworks in a solo exhibition reflecting the confrontation between gesture and geometry and a return to his first loves – black and white, yin and yang, emptiness and fullness, the appearance and disappearance of letters – L’Atlas will be exhibiting with Paris-born artist Tanc (aka Tancrède Perrot) at UAF Solo Shows from October 21 to 25, 2020, an annual salon in the French capital that offers a more intimate version of the Urban Art Fair and animates a street dedicated to art in the heart of the Marais district. They will put on a duo show in collaboration with Ground Effect gallery symbolic of their two-decade-long friendship. Both with roots in graffiti, the pair first met in 2001 and have been inseparable since. Although they work independently, they have shared a studio together since 2003, and regularly display their individual creations in the same exhibitions, even occasionally presenting four-hand pieces in which each has left his own mark on the same canvas.

Uniting letter, gesture, abstraction and collage in his art that’s at the limits of the unconscious, Tanc expresses his feelings, moods and desires in a clever blend of energy, spontaneity, vibration and rhythm. Like a musician composing a music score, he produces oil on canvas paintings by applying paint directly from the tube rather than using a brush, and forms night landscapes by superimposing layers of torn paper. He speaks of the musicality of his creations: “In my landscapes, we can speak of noise (a way of interpreting the framework of dots that fills the space) or of silence, fullness and emptiness. My painting goes from minimalism to maximalism.” At UAF Solo Shows, L’Atlas will display various optical art pieces, works made using fluorescent paint and his unique shaped canvases, while for the fair’s central installation, they will each tackle one side of a five-meter-long hanging scroll resembling a giant ribbon unfurling from the sky to the ground. Imagine a kakemono used for Japanese calligraphy or an ancient Egyptian papyrus revisited with their distinct contemporary written languages: L’Atlas will repeat his black-and-white logo over and over in a form of punishment, while Tanc will offer viewers a taste of his indecipherable automatic writing. L’Atlas will follow this up with his one-man show, Underground Streams, at ArtCan Gallery in Marseille from November 6 to December 4, 2020 showcasing 20 works including fades, drips, manhole imprints and his logo set against a background of salvaged advertising street posters that have been ripped and pasted on wood.

Now to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the VAO crew he founded in 1995, L’Atlas is curating three consecutive group exhibitions at the galleries Ground Effect in Paris from October 8 to 25, 2020, At Down in Montpellier from November 5 to December 5, 2020 and Martine Ehmer in Brussels from November 28, 2020 to January 10, 2021. The acronym for Vandalisme Artistique Organisé (Organized Artistic Vandalism), VAO initially brought together three friends active in the Parisian graffiti scene, which has since expanded to include 45 members (individuals and duos) – over a dozen newly minted this year – with a broader outlook, including the likes of JonOne, Mambo, Remi Rough, Rafael Sliks, Parole and Simek. The trio of shows will each present works by all VAO artists to encourage dialog on their diverse abstract and optical visions of the urban world. Concurrently, L’Atlas will put on a duo exhibition entitled Sides with Tanc at Martine Ehmer Gallery featuring works that may be read in multiple directions, creations on spinning motors and several four-hand pieces. He concludes, “It’s a way to have a discussion within the abstract movement so I can propose my vision that abstract painting is more universal and more important in art history than figurative painting, not only through my art but through my friends’ works to show different viewpoints, always on the same subjects: abstraction, gesture and geometry.”

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