WK Interact interviewed in his home/studio Central St. Manhattan NY 11 Feb 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“For me the reason to start working on the street was freedom of expression. Inside a gallery space, only a certain type of people come to see your work and you restrict the scene. Partly I was attracted to the illegality of working on buildings, the anarchy of laying claim to something because it’s out there in the world. It’s something beautiful to watch people moving past your work because it means that every minute it changes. So once it’s on a building, it’s a constant progression of the piece being constantly recycled because of what surrounds it.”
Against an apartment block on New York’s Lower East Side, an elongated male figure in black fatigues and base-jumping parachute harness slithers vertically up a wall in five curvilinear stages as if about to metamorphose into an urban butterfly on reaching the rooftop. The elastically stretched-out depiction of the figure’s plummet down the other side is heightened by the plunging zigzag triangulation of the black metal fire escapes which frame WK Interact’s white-rollered stripe of wall.
“To take an image and adapt it on the street, the structure of the work is actually the building itself. Every time I paint or glue something on a building, I always touch the building. For me it’s very important, the history of the building, but regardless of the scale, the sense of touch and communication of an emotion is the thing.”
But often WK feels the aggressive impact of some of his image content is misunderstood as the manifestation of an alienating visual intent driving the work as a whole.
“Behind the mask of fear in the work, if people saw me painting with a little brush and slowly filling up the space then they’d understand that it’s actually quietness and calm, almost the opposite.”
The resonant French voice relating visual expanses of quietude – in stark contrast to the constant rumble of SoHo streets outside his studio window – momentarily transports me to a beach in Nice, South of France, in 1947 where as art students Yves Klein, Claude Pascal and Arman bronzed themselves whilst discussing links between art and nature. Klein claimed to have signed his name on the other side of the sky and from that point on his work was inextricably linked with the void and the colour blue which by 1958 he had patented as “IKB” (International Klein Blue). His two friends claimed the sea and the earth respectively as their own artistic domains, and it’s with this distinctively French sensibility that what we might refer to as “WK B&W” imagery has claimed the New York streets as its own extended domain, appropriating the textural canvas of brick, metal, wood and glass.
When he first arrived in New York, WK – who incidentally chose his street name for its punch, its double impact, the upwards/sideways energy of the letters (“It’s not a regular name to the French so they didn’t know who I was. Often people expect me to be German or American, anything but French and I like that anonymity.”) – had a day job painting city walls in monochromes. He would save any unused paints for his own art works and stuck with their preordained leftover palette of black and white as intrinsically expressive of New York. Its graphic clarity served to make the dynamic visual attack of his figurative interventions all the more iconic.
“So when you see my image, it’s in black and white flat on the wall but I feel the activity from the inside out, there’s an intensity there in the human interaction which is also important for me to extend to the viewing public, that’s the ‘Interact’ in my name. WK interacting with interior, with exterior, a brand, or other artists – the whole idea is that it’s a constant challenge. My intention was not so much to be a muralist but an installationist, provoking the public through my way of responding to the architecture.”
Location is impact, where skewed angles of viewpoint underline as well as undermine a fluid sense of perspective, adding force to the physicality of the viewing experience. The confrontational strength of feeling a WK image can elicit is like being winded by a visual sucker punch. WK boxed when he was younger and, in researching the martial arts for his paintings, he spent time in training centres getting to know the fighters and memorising their moves. He would then sketch the positions he wanted as a storyboard, recreating his imaginary conflict scenarios for real in a studio photo-shoot using his martial arts’ friends as models.
Special Forces operatives in mid-swing, armed robbers, trained fighters, street couriers, these guys define the New York vocabulary of WK’s work: male combatants captured at the split-second before attack in a coiled-up state of aggression and fear, suspended in time like Weegee meets Fantastic Four. The adrenalised sense of threat which characterises the WK aesthetic is a reaction to and reflection of the energy the artist feels emanates from the New York streets.
“At 17 or 18 years old, I was drawing dancers, trying to catch them not when posing but in mid-jump. It’s almost impossible to draw someone jumping, but I was so motivated to catch the motion, all my work is based on motion.”
WK’s work often depicts sequential, stop-frame movement – of a martial arts kick, punch and leap, for example. It references Umberto Boccioni’s seminal Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting written in 1910 in which he wrote “we no longer seek to depict a fixed moment in universal dynamism but the dynamic sensation itself”. Once scaled up, WK’s work reads as a visual continuation, connecting one location to another as a figure appears to launch itself at one spot and make a landing somewhere else. The artist’s long-term aim remains to make a piece in Manhattan which connects five or six streets with figures running along the tops and bottoms of buildings in sequence, seeming to leap in continuity across the traffic over a number of intersections. Looking more closely at the artist’s graphic variations on his own WK monogram, he accentuates the angularity of cuneiform interpenetration between the W and the K, like they’re off-gridded streets coinciding.
“The best part of my work is to create connections between buildings. The more complicated the architecture, the more interesting the image potential because instead of a long flat wall, a flat image, I can curve and stretch the image and instead of having one story I can have three narratives all chasing each other and you stand in the middle of the image and you’re part of it.”
Curving the images round corners of buildings brings with it a heightened sense of 3-D motion. Ripples that pass across the figures where they stretch and morph give them a grainy disembodied texture that activates the surface of the building upon which the work becomes a parasite project.
A century ago, the French symbolist poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire had a metaphor for the creative impulse behind early abstract art as a flame which encompassed and subsumed everything else it touched. Apollinaire intimated that there was an element to the avant-garde artist’s creative process in which he was mildly destructive to the form that he created as he brought a painting or sculpture into being.
“I take a photo, three shots combined into one continuation of movement as if in slow motion, then using a Xerox machine I stretch out the image to A4 and then project it up to whatever size is necessary in relation to the building. The large works are not stencilled, they’re painted by hand. When paper works are laid onto brick, I’m interested in the vein of the brick beneath and that the edge of the paper is broken by hand and not cut with scissors. I want it to breathe with the building, to be organic, not plastic.”
It’s like an urban skin then almost, albeit thickly scarred by the street. The avant-garde dialectic of creation-through-destruction is particularly apparent in WK’s gallery works. They tend to be on board or found objects rather than traditional canvas and incorporate barcodes, numbers, old newsprint adverts, street signage with warnings like “police line do not cross”, vintage health adverts advising “control yourself”. When scaled down for a gallery solo show, WK’s figures morph back to life size. At Elms Lesters, they are still able to interact architecturally with the space, and in the case of works laid onto found NYC architects’ layout plans, continue to play a game with urban infrastructures, just on a different scale.
Daniel Spoerri’s seminal 1960s’ assemblages, which he entitled “snare-pictures”, make an interesting comparison with WK’s art objects for the way they both collage into themselves the detritus of the street. In WK there are fire alarms and “Danger!” signs, always the signifiers of legal boundary and zones of trespass.
There’s an argument for nominating WK’s shows themselves not as exhibitions but “expositions” in the French sense of exposure and the action of making public. WK expos rarely feel confined by their interior space, emphasising connections between his positions geographically and artistically. WK’s aesthetic partly echoes that of the Nouveau Réalisme (or New Realism) generation of artists who emerged in France in the early Sixties and included Spoerri as well as Arman, César, Christo and Nikki de Saint Phalle.
“I’d been working for 12 years before I discovered these artists and how important they were art historically. I felt instantly connected to the nouveau réaliste movement and it was sad for me to discover that most of these artists had already passed away.”
Today, Spoerri is the only key survivor of the group and reconsidering his work in relation to WK’s is a reminder that WK’s underlying conceptual methodology is quintessentially French whilst its practical execution is totally New York.
“If I was making work in Paris it would probably be more sexual, with a palette made up of browns and beige, no black and white, no fear, smaller in size, adapting itself to the scale and energy of that city.”
WK is only half joking when he points out the absurdity that a street artist is more likely to be arrested in New York for putting up an image of a semi-naked woman than of someone shooting a gun.
“In Paris a gun-toting image wouldn’t make any sense. I did a work using 18 naked women on paper attached to the crumbling walls of an old Mairie, it was beautiful.”
One of these recurring naked female dreamers floated over a painted door in his most recent exhibition at Elms Lesters. He found the door thrown out onto the street in the West Village and its dislocation from interior to exterior space suggested an eyes-wide-shut play with Surrealist eroticism, the somnolent turn of an ex-lover’s head, the curvilinear elongation of the body, her self-caressing hands. “Elle flotte, elle hésite, en un mot elle est femme”, to quote 17th-century dramatist Jean Racine.
The link between stage drama and the Surrealist movement provides perhaps an unexpected final insight into this artist’s oeuvre. A recent monograph on WK was subtitled Act 2, emphasising his fascination with the performative restaging of the figure. In his new Pillow Dream series, displayed in his 2008 Elms Lesters show, he cast white pillows leaving the indentation made by a sleeping head and painting delicate butterfly reveries in the vacated space.
Dreaming of course was championed by Surrealist artists like poet Paul Eluard and painter Max Ernst as “pure psychic automatism”, the metaphorical interval (or entr’acte) in our daily lives where we share the unabashed impulse of creativity. René Clair even made a silent film called Entr’acte in 1924, an early Surrealist experiment with the newly-coined aesthetic of instantanéisme, where a cast including Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia run through the streets in speeding pursuit, or jump on the spot in super slo-mo. One interpretation of the film is that the entr’acte stands as a metaphor for life itself and our passage through it.
WK’s development is to make the entr’acte of life interact with art. There’s a constant interplay in his imagery between tension and release, as if the figures have been paused in the momentary interval between intention and action, a kind of psychosomatic entr’acte on the cusp of bodily interaction.
Ben Jones, August 2008