I completed the following essay in December 2010, shortly after the theatrical release of Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, and decided to post it for two reasons. The first of which is that I was really happy with the way this paper turned out and wanted to preserve it. The second is the fact that, even a year later and amidst all of the controversy that came to light after the release of this film, I’m still mesmerized by Thierry Guetta, A.K.A. “Mr. Brainwash.” A lot of people think that, and still believe, this guy was just a puppet for the film—a fact I didn’t really pursue in my paper—but he’s still out there working and selling a lot of work. In fact, he just opened his third solo exhibition earlier this month at the Opera Gallery in London, and there were plenty of protesters. Enjoy:
How MBW copied the success patterns of art’s biggest stars to become the newest art icon
“A question that many young artists ask is, ‘How are artist’s discovered?’ But the fact is, artists discover their own audiences and peers” (Grant 61).
Who is Mr. Brainwash? The french-born, Los Angeles-based figure Thierry Guetta has been called naïve, a copycat, and even a hoax. But an artist? His pieces, reminiscent of familiar Pop art images infused with street art themes, took the art world by storm and quickly became a hot item at the market–with pieces selling for as much as $300,000–regardless of any real credibility. Beginning as (or at least attempting to be) a documentary filmmaker working closely with street artists around the world made him fall in love with the movement. Over time, and with some self-inflated encouragement from art star Banksy, he dubbed himself Mr. Brainwash (or MBW for short) and became intent on making his pseudonym famous. His debut, 2008’s Life is Beautiful, was a massive undertaking that undoubtedly made him a star.
Through sheer determination, plus the right connections and a lot of ingenuity, Mr. Brainwash was able to explode into the world of not only street art, but mainstream gallery art, with little to no experience or name recognition. At first, his sheer star power led some critics to coin him the next Andy Warhol. Following Life is Beautiful MBW was commissioned to create the cover for Madonna’s greatest hits collection, along with the art for accompanying DVDs and singles, and in 2010 was the subject of the Sundance hit documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. But MBW’s portrayal in the documentary kept a majority of the art world away from his second show, Icons: Part One. Just as fast as MBW became a star, many critics began to recognize his “talent” for nothing more than successful exploitation. Jonathan Levine, owner of a New York gallery and graffiti scene insider, has called MBW’s work “all completely derivative of Shepard [Fairey] and Banksy” (Jackson and Schuker). As MBW’s career unfolds it is becoming clear that the unfavorable comparison to these two artists, as well as his early recognition as Warhol-esque, has to do with artistic talent and everything to do with artistic admiration.
This essay will explore the phenomenon and air of success Guetta was able to create around himself by blatantly copying the success patterns of other artists; namely Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Andy Warhol; who epitomize the niche mold of postmodern celebrity artists “who perform beyond their own art” (Celis). Or, in the case of MBW, beyond one’s own artistic capabilities.
STREET ART IDOLS
According to The Fine Artist’s Career Guide, “Meeting people and becoming known as an artist is very important; many believe it should be one’s top priority in an art world that places considerable emphasis on who-you-know” (Grant 61).
Prior to entering the world of street art, MBW made his living running a vintage clothing shop in Los Angeles, but he also possessed the strange obsession of carrying a video camera and obsessively recording his surroundings night and day. During a family vacation to France in 1999, he discovered that his cousin is the international graffiti artist Space Invader, and began accompanying him and his friends (other street artists) at first documenting, and later assisting in the installation of street art. Thus began his initiation into, and obsession with, the growing movement.
Through Space Invader, MBW became friends with and began to film street art’s two biggest stars: Shepard Fairey, who is “arguably one of the most popular American artists at the beginning of this century” (Fairey 12, E Pluribus Venom), and the elusive British artist Banksy. What he documented while traveling with them would establish all that he knew about the meaning and creation of art. As a result of Thierry’s idolatry of these two artists, he began producing and putting up his own art. Albeit on a small scale, his first attempts unquestionably mimicked the process and production of Fairey, Banksy, and the numerous other street artists he had followed—all that Thierry understood about being successful in the public eye.
MBW’s first posters were black and white, large scale photocopies of a self-portrait stencil drawing that equaled Fairey’s iconic Obey posters in both style and size, and following Fairey’s process, he traveled to the same locations and used the same materials to create and distribute his art. And the same comparisons can be made to Banksy as well, who is well known for using his stencils of rats, monkeys, soldiers, police officers, and children to create anti-war and anti-establishment statements in public spaces. After numerous hours of watching Banksy at work, MBW appropriated his simplistic stencil technique to create a number of cultural icon images (a theme that would play heavily in his later work) to advance his work on the street. In two of his most recognizable stencils thus far that emulate (primarily) Banksy’s clean illustrative technique on paper or cardboard to create an easily reproducible image, Albert Einstein and Alfred Hitchcock replace Banksy’s familiar sign-bearing rats and monkeys, but in the cheery fashion of MBW, satirical and anti-capitalist statements are replaced with the upbeat “Life is Beautiful” and “Love is the Answer.”
In line with both artist’s brand of repeat guerilla-style deployment of their media-conscious imagery, a common street art theme that has been described as “endlessly reiterated graphic instruction” (Poynor 7), he quickly moved to producing stickers and multi-colored posters with this single image and repetitively covering as much as Los Angeles as he could. Even the name he would eventually take, Mr. Brainwash, is a thematic copy of Fairey’s long-running Obey Giant campaign (both commenting on the evils of consumerism, capitalism, and the power of advertising), an experiment in phenomenology through repetitive use of images. The more MBW was able to successfully replicate the work of these two artists, the closer he came towards a full-fledged entry into the arena of street art, but the most successful street artists had already moved on to bigger and better things.
After long careers of perfecting their art on the street, both Fairey and Banksy had gone on to hold highly successful gallery shows that drew some of the biggest stars in Los Angeles and New York, and MBW had been there to film it. As one private collector noted, “No serious contemporary art collection would be complete without a Banksy” (qtd in Exit Through the Gift Shop). Craving that same success, but with no time to wait, MBW rented a full studio complete with a production team of artists, graphic designers, and carpenters to create his art, positioning himself with the tools and means to align himself as a contemporary.
Outside of the message, Fairey’s Andre the Giant image (the centerpiece of his Obey Giant campaign) has been said to mean absolutely nothing and exists only to provoke a reaction (Poynor 179). Fairey’s influence has found its way into MBW’s gallery work as well, where he takes image repetition beyond the point of meaninglessness in an ironic fashion that pulls not only from Banksy and Fairey’s bodies of work, but from one of their main influences as well: Andy Warhol. For instance, he has a fondness for Monroe-izing the pantheon of celebrities and pop culture icons. From Larry King to Spock, Condoleezza Rice to Jack Nicholson, and Michael Jackson to Marilyn Manson (and beyond), no icon is able to escape her famous silk-screened blonde locks and blue eye shadow.
Until recently, Fairey may be the only artist aside from Warhol to gain similar recognition for foregrounding a multitude of pop culture figures in his work—his most successful being Barack Obama, who can arguably attribute Fairey with his rise to iconic status—but MBW has certainly taken the lead without repose. And while these so called “icons” are a staple of MBW’s work, like everything else they are a borrowed idea. The Fairey-owned Swindle magazine has published an annual Icons issue since 2006, featuring each 50 leading art and culture figures “whose influence will persist long after they are gone” (Gastman 33). And though MBW has yet to grace the pages of Icons, a number of his print subjects have, with a majority being the focus of his second show Icons: Part One. In addition, Space Invader provided the cover artwork, and was featured inside, an early issue of Swindle, assuring MBW’s familiarity with both the publication and subject matter to propel his “ideas” of focusing on iconic subject matter.
MBW has undoubtedly copied their successful gallery work style as well. After Banksy, specifically his “vandalized paintings” (Banksy 158) composed of classic landscapes and fine art portraits that have ironically-appended details such as Black Hawk helicopters attacking a classical countryside or the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus listening to an iPod. MBW’s most recognizable pieces (among many) being Bat Papi and Cat Nana, ironic, historical portraits of Batman and Catwoman’s ancestors. And after Fairey, who’s gallery work consists of repetitive experimentation with the same images across different mediums and printing processes, MBW tends to fill every inch of his gallery space with seemingly identical repetition of his imagery (specifically his spray cans) in what looks like an unending display of artist’s proofs and duplicate prints in an attempt to match Fairey’s successful E Pluribus Venom show. Both this show and Banksy’s Barely Legal show in Los Angeles were likely the only experience MBW had with a large-scale, successful art show prior to holding his own, and expressly the model he copied when putting together Life is Beautiful.
A STREET ART WARHOL FACTORY
While MBW’s street art connections are by far his closest inspirations the homage does not stop there, but pays further tribute to the canon of art history as well. As seen in Exit Through the Gift Shop MBW uses The Art Book, a picture “encyclopedia” of art history, to determine what he likes, or more importantly, what his art should look like. From his workshop, piece after pice has been cranked out in a amalgamation of all artist(ic) styles, including a Duchampian graffiti-covered urinal, giant matchbox cars (complete with packaging) and oversized spray can sculptures reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg, large scale monsters constructed out of television sets in the style of Nam June Paik, and, in addition to his numerous celebrity-as-Marilyn Monroe prints, an equally unending amount of tomato soup-inspired spray paint cans.
Much like the tomato soup can became Warhol’s iconic image, the spray paint can will undoubtedly be MBW’s legacy. Like Warhol, who erased the line between high and low art in the 1960s by repeating the classic American image of the Campbell’s soup can, MBW has again reinvented this icon as his signature; first as a direct descendant in the form of “Tomato Spray” and later appropriating a number of other classic brands such as Hershey’s Spray Chocolate, Heinz Ketchup Spray, Morton’s Spray Salt, and even Starbuck’s Coffee Spray. MBW’s spray can imagery was the face of Life is Beautiful and massive can sculptures were created for both of his shows ranging from 4 feet to twelve feet in size in addition to numerous prints adorned by the imagery. But even though MBW’s copies are unique, they are still copies of one of the most recognizable art images of the last 50 years, and while some may not be familiar with the work of Fairey and Banksy who are still young in their careers, Warhol’s tomato soup can imagery is a recognizable to the American public as Abraham Lincoln or Coca-Cola. No matter how successful his tomato spray imagery has become it is impossible to see it as anything less than derivative of a cultural icon.
Partly because of his intense naivete numerous arguments have been made that MBW is nothing more than a hoax, a creation by Banksy to prank the art world, with some even speculating that MBW is Banksy. But both Banksy and Fairey have vehemently denied these speculations. In fact, naivete may just be another of the many traits that he picked up from Warhol. After achieving fame, Warhol made a habit of shrugging off the notion that he was either smart or competent. For instance, during a 1970 interview he attributed silkscreen inconsistencies with the fact that he “didn’t know how to really screen” (Cresap 2), but popular belief regards his naivete as a put-on. Mr. Brainwash claims to not follow the art world, read art magazines, or attend other’s exhibitions. In effect he claims to be “completely outside of the art world. [knowing only] a couple of names—Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons. But I don’t know anything” (Haden-Guest). But Icons: Part One featured an entire wall of artist portraits including Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Renee Magritte, and Norman Rockwell—quite a few more than the couple of names he claims to know. In further comparison, Warhol was also called “a flagrant self-promoter and cynical opportunist who degraded the seriousness of art through relentless commercialism” (Baal-Teshuva), much like the harsh criticism that MBW has received from Levine and others questioning his artistic worth, and was rarely seen without a camera in his hands filming his every move. Regardless if a man calling himself Mr. Brainwash is putting us on or truly naïve, the traits he has picked up from one of art history’s biggest stars are too many to ignore.
EXPLOITING THE ART SYSTEM
MBW passes all of his inspirations and regards toward “good” or “successful” art onto his many assistants and employees who then create the art for him at his workshop—a modern system that can be attributed to one of the 20th Century’s most monetarily successful artists: Jeff Koons. Koons has been equally praised and criticized for the same reasons as MBW, and both share many similarities in their work philosophy. For instance, Koons runs a studio with more than 100 assistants that carry out his concepts to mass produce art for him, with his working focus being “the commodification of art—art treated as an item for sale or consumption” (Fineberg 471). In Exit Through the Gift Shop we see MBW’s employees thumbing through his notes, creating his artwork in its entirety, and presenting him with the finished pieces for approval. In fact, the only time we see MBW at work is when he is randomly spraying or dripping paint across already finished pieces to make each one a unique creation, that he can then give an exorbitant price to increase his bank account.
Koons sees the monetary value in art as equal to artistic worth, and in an attempt to exploit that power left his job as a highly successful Wall Street broker to pursue art, much like MBW turned to art regardless of owning a successful business that provided for his family and endless trips around the world to document street art—and both promote themselves like an agent would market a superstar athlete or movie star. Koons once proclaimed, “I want to be as big an art star as possible. I like the idea of my work selling for a lot of money” (Doss 213). In a similar fashion, once MBW knew that a mass of art collectors would be attending Life is Beautiful his first inclination was to make as much money as possible, marking up his pieces for tens of thousands of dollars even though he had never perviously sold a piece of art. The images of both Koons and Damien Hirst, another artist that successfully practices the factory model, showed up in MBW’s Icons: Part One, and are consistently the only artist names that MBW claims to be familiar with during interviews.
Arguably, similar connections can be made regarding MBW’s exploitation of the factory model and superstar desires to Hirst as well, who is also a proponent that the real creation of art is in the conception, not the execution. In fact, the art factory is a model that historically dates back to the Renaissance—a common practice by many of the great masters such as DaVinci and Michelangelo—and was first made famous by Warhol, providing historical record that could have further helped MBW pursue others to create his art for him. And MBW consistently defends his type of art making as original because Koons and Hirst make the same claims.
MBW’s career as an artist is about making money and becoming a superstar, and not about the art. To accomplish this goal, he became friends with the biggest stars (Fairey and Banksy), emulated the loveable icon (Warhol), and familiarized himself with the most financially successful (Koons and Hirst) to become a superstar artist that doesn’t have to rely on artistic or technical abilities to be successful. And just like Koons desires, he is becoming as big of an art star as possible, and his work is selling for a lot of money.
In the documentary Painters Painting, Warhol is asked, “How do you pick your images?,” and he responds, “I don’t. I don’t have any ideas. I just ask other people to tell me what to do.” While we know this to be part of the “Andy” persona, this is the artist that MBW truly is—completely devoid of any original ideas. His only real artistic talent is impersonating other successful artist who have come before him, but it is these connections and comparisons, even the unfavorable ones, to Banksy, Fairey, Warhol, and others that seem to be the reason for his success. When Warhol and the American Pop artists appeared in the late 1950s they were equally criticized, but “[Pop art’s] presentation by artists and dealers, and reception by collectors and [the] public, surely rendered any potential for critique futile and invalid” (Mamiya 158). As one anonymous buyer stated about purchasing MBW’s work, “It doesn’t matter if he is good or bad. He has the right connections, and that’s why I’m buying” (Celis), and in addition Opera Gallery owner Rino Maddaloni, a representative of MBW’s work, cleverly defended his position as an artist against the critics: “Does he sell? Yes. Is he good? Yes, because he sells” (Celis).
But it doesn’t matter if his work is good or bad, original or derivative. MBW is a successful artist simply because of other successful artists, because he was able to identify what history categorizes as successful art and exploit it for his own benefit. He has created a persona that the art world is enamored with; a superstar celebrity in the world of art that is beyond the art itself, and—like Warhol, Johns, and even Picasso—can sell any piece at any price. And even though the history books will likely be unfavorable towards his persona and body of work, like Koons, Hirst, and others, his work will be there.
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