Thierry Guetta is looking forward to exploring the dark side. “Well, let’s say dark, but always with a hint of light in it, that shows you what life could be,” says the French artist better known as Mr Brainwash.
Guetta, who is based in Los Angeles, is full of such positivity; enough to make a cynic suspect that he’s putting it on. But somehow that suits an artist who those of a more conspiratorial bent still claim is just an elaborate front for British artist Banksy.
Mr Brainwash came to prominence in Banksy’s 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop: the broad accent, the trademark sunglasses, moustache and hat, the endless enthusiasm, even the suggestive moniker — it was all just too good to be true.
It’s a notion that Guetta himself plays on. “When you say ‘you are [Banksy]’, they say ‘no you’re not’. And when you say ‘I’m not’ they say ‘yeah, sure you are!’,” he says with a chuckle. “In life everything comes out in the end. Now is not the right time but time will tell. And it will be a big surprise.”
Indeed, if Mr Brainwash is some kind of complicated art world joke, Guetta is the one laughing, given the rapidity of his ascendency. The photographer and videographer turned graffiti artist found himself very much the centre of the art world’s attention as a consequence of that documentary appearance and since then is reputed to have made more than $20 million through his upbeat, irreverent and referential works.
That’s not counting all the side gigs — album covers for Madonna and Rick Ross, collaborations with Nike, Mercedes and Coca-Cola, and prestige commissions such as the gigantic projection he made on the side of London’s Battersea Power Station last year.
And soon, if all goes to post-Covid plan, he’s opening not just a gallery, but a museum of his work, in the Richard Meier-designed, former Museum of Television & Radio building on Beverly Drive in LA. He promises it will show a whole new side to his art, too.
“I’ve worked for 15 years and haven’t shown any of the kind of work that I also wanted to show, so much as more the work I felt people wanted,” Guetta says. “Over those years, I made work that was colourful, that was happy, that I hoped made people happy, and the more I did that the more people wanted it. So then you’re judged on something that doesn’t represent all of who you are. But another side of myself has an aesthetic that’s very different to what I’m known for.”
That’s been 15 years of commercial but not necessarily artistic credibility too, in part perhaps because the art world is only now getting to grips with street art, despite, as Guetta claims, it being the most pure, most expressive of all art forms. In Guetta’s case, it’s been heavily influenced by pop art, but, with his work referencing everyone from Van Gogh to Warhol, also left him open to accusations of appropriation.
“I’m not a pure graffiti artist. I’m more a pop artist than anything else — pop as in popular — because I want art to have an influence on people, to brainwash,” he says. “But pop art [especially] has no limits as to where it can go... And the pop artist has to be engaged with what’s going on, as Warhol showed. When I take influence from other artists’ work for me it’s [not copying but] more like an homage. For sure these are artists that I admire and love.”
Certainly, in keeping with his life-is-for-living philosophy, while Guetta does genuinely seem to be enjoying the ride, oblivious to criticism, he also sees the market value of his art as a force for good, such that he’s lent his spray can to charitable collaborations with the likes of Michelle Obama and the pope.
“The fact is that the art world is really just a big game, and anyone who plays it thinks they know it, but really they don’t,” Guetta says. “If there’s someone who wants to spend $100 million on a painting, which in a few years from now will be $200 million, then fine, that’s the art system. But that says more about the fact that money today isn’t what it was before — people become billionaires overnight now because they’ve designed an app. So suddenly [how art is valued] has no rules. Who knows where this art market is going.”
As for critical acclaim, he really does not seem bothered at all. His sales, he might well say, speak for themselves. Instead he takes the long view.
“Look at the history of the art world and it’s been wrong so many times," he says, referring to what constitutes art. “We rarely know what impact the art being produced at any time will have anyway. In the end you just have to make the art that comes from who you are, that’s a product of your life.”
The coming months will see whether the other, unseen side of his life brings people to his museum, assuming that doesn’t prove to be some kind of arty-clever ruse, of course.