The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Thursday, September 8, 2011

Celebrity comes in all shapes and sizes, but I’ve never come across so oddly assembled a package as Thierry Guetta.

“You can’t choose your future,” offers Guetta, 45, in heavily French-inflected English. It’s a guileless non-sequitur, in his typically amiable fashion, followed up with an irrefutable truth: “From where I was to where I am, it’s a different world.”

That’s for sure. Somehow, some way, Guetta — who you might know better as Mr. Brainwash, if you know him at all — has jumped the line to be included in the pantheon of international street-art giants like Shepard Fairey — he of the iconic Obama “Hope” poster, most recently — and, of course, Banksy, the British kingpin of the street-art explosion.

That part’s important. Banksy, whose guerrillistic creative chutzpah knows no bounds, made Guetta the subject of his Oscar-nominated documentary last year, Exit Through the Gift Shop. He also made him a star — inadvertently, or so he claims — which is why Guetta and his team of handlers are in Toronto this week.

Like legions of the famous, or simply fame-hungry, Guetta has come for the Toronto International Film Festival, though he’s here at TIFF’s own behest: The festival has commissioned Guetta to install seven eight-foot-tall spray cans festooned with the artist’s unique take on Hollywood — “Comedy Film Spray,” emblazoned with a spray-can-wielding Charlie Chaplin, for example — along the red carpet at Roy Thomson Hall.

At the same time, an exhibition of Brainwash works opens Thursday at Gallery One in Yorkville, where I met Guetta this week to survey his sudden, evolving ouevre.

Around him, the works lining the walls represent a mixmaster of styles and subjects that Guetta seems to have picked and chosen at random to make his particular brand of art: Shameless appropriations of Andy Warhol silkscreen portraits, Keith Haring’s kinetic figures, Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin. Behind him, a Brainwash credo: “Life is Beautiful,” scrawled in red spray paint.

Just as eye-catching were the price tags. Prices for some works surpassed $30,000.

He offered a brief tour — “Bob Marley was like a legend to me,” he says, gesturing to a collage portrait of the famed reggae artist, rendered in broken vinyl records; of another, the Charlie Chaplin piece, he said, “people in Hollywood at the time, all so good-looking, and he chose to be a bum!” — then shrugged a little.

“When I do a show like this, I’m not really involved,” he said, and that much is true. In the movie, much is made of Brainwash’s vast studio team madly assembling hundreds of works like elves in a demented Santa’s workshop. “With a show, there is the name show, so you need to make a show — like spectacular,” he says. “You need to give.”

Which, presumably, is what Brainwash will be doing as he puts together his spray-can works at Roy Thomson Hall Thursday. He’s doing a little more, too: A large mural of Alfred Hitchcock holding a sign that says “life is beautiful” — his catchphrase — and a wheatpaste image of Alfred Einstein declaring “Love is the Answer.”

The answer to who, or what, Mr. Brainwash actually is himself is not so uncomplicatedly sincere. The short version of how the double-barreled Guetta/Brainwash enigma came into being, as seen in the film, goes like this: About a decade ago — timing is hazy, to say the least — Guetta was a French immigrant running a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles. During and before, he was an obsessive videographer, constantly filming anything and everything.

Then, during a family holiday in France, Guetta’s scattershot videographic bumbling led him to film his cousin, a French street artist of semi-renown named Space Invader. There, his world changed. Through Invader, Thierry became the highly unofficial videographer of an emerging generation of street artists whose presence was just beginning to be felt on the global cultural scene.

Guetta attached himself to Shepard Fairey — he of the OBEY series, a stylized portrait of Andre the Giant, and eventual maker of the ubiquitous Obama campaign poster, HOPE — which led, inevitably, to Banksy himself.

Things get a little hazy here. Guetta shoots hour after hour of Banksy installing his gutsy, sardonic socio-political works in London and L.A. Then a pivot-point emerges: In 2008, Banksy tells Guetta it’s time to put his years of footage to good use and extract the brilliant documentary buried in his mountains of tape. Guetta’s first try is so incomprehensible that Banksy sends him back to L.A. to “try making some of his own art” while he “has a go” with the tapes himself.

His “go” becomes Exit Through the Gift Shop, which goes on to be nominated for an Oscar for best documentary in 2010 (it didn’t win). Guetta’s inaugural art endeavour, meanwhile, a massive, sprawling show of 200-plus works, assembled in mere weeks with an industrial-sized crew, is chronicled in the film as a triumph of hype and commercialism over aesthetic. A tacit Bansky semi-endorsement tips the balance: “Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”

Guetta used the quote in a billboard-sized promotional poster, and the press took note. Within a few weeks, Guetta’s not-very-good, painfully derivative art, filled with knock-off versions of everyone from Warhol to Ron English to Banksy himself, took in more than $1 million.

Here, we pause. The art is just blatantly banal enough, maybe, to be intentionally so, despite Guetta’s protestations. “It’s trying to put a smile on the people’s face,” he says. “We need positivity, we need to smile — we can fix everything with love!”

Maybe he protests too much. The idea has certainly been floated that Mr. Brainwash is, in fact, a Banksy construct, designed to prove that hype is the ultimate force of nature, trumping all else, and that Guetta is a sly co-conspirator, on the ride — one he’s clearly enjoying — for as long as it lasts.

If Guetta’s in on it, he’ll never say. “There is confusion in the film — is Mr. Brainwash an artist, is he real, is he made up?’” Guetta says. “At the end, I say, time will tell. It’s like Van Gogh — you will judge me when I’m gone.”

By Murray Whyte in The Toronto Star.