If you’ve already ventured into Belleville, in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, you can be sure you’ve walked past one of Philippe Hérard’s “gugusses”. The French artist has been based in this French quartier – home to Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier – for the past 25 years, and has kindly received us into his atelier, for an interview and coffee.
The stories Hérard pastes up on walls in the street, or paints onto canvas, are those of faceless figures placed in absurd or uncomfortable situations. His work quickly becomes familiar to passersby, with its earth toned palette and symbolic elements: buoys, ladders and planets. A dreary atmosphere and sense of helplessness emanates from all this.
When asked about his artistic influences, Hérard tells us without hesitation: Jean Rustin. “He’s a great man. A very great man.” With a dark palette and figurative style, Rustin’s characters transpire a sombre and disenchanted vision of humankind. The women and men he paints are raw: their grotesque, sometimes naked bodies are shamelessly exposed in cramped positions; their expressionless faces, staring directly at the viewer, convey a feeling of aimlessness and resignation.
Some of the same obscurity can be found in Hérard’s paintings, but in a less blunt manner. His “gugusses” (the name he has given to the characters present in almost all his pieces) appear huddled in on themselves, pulled by strings, trapped in buoys, facing walls… They are often looking away, but when facing forward, their faces are darkened, so as not to impose their gaze on the viewer. Hérard is certainly more chaste in his representation of the human condition: “It’s obvious that my work is about me, about others, because we’re not necessarily all happy. […] I paint firstly because I need it to feel better. It’s my frame to express myself […] It’s my way of saying things to others. That’s all”. Hérard concedes that he does not analyse anything. While working, some things become obvious to him, such as the use of the buoy which pleased him visually. All his paintings are titled ‘cent titres’ (phonetically, it can mean ‘without a title’ or ‘one hundred titles’), leaving the interpretation free to all. However, Hérard’s work can sometimes be more abrasive. He did a series of portraits called “sutures”, in which faces are wounded, lacerated and sewn. This may unconsciously be a reference to Rustin’s disfigured humans.
Oddly enough, Hérard has only been a street artist since 2009: “I told myself I should try it out. So, very humbly, I put my gugusses and buoys in the street, which I painted on craft paper. I had something to show. It started out like that”. Before then, he was content with exposing his work in galleries. The street, however, offers a different creative experience. “It was quite odd at first, because I felt like I was doing something bad. I did it during the day. And then I was quite surprised, because people were very welcoming. This really motivated me. An exchange was taking place.” Hérard then discovered that people were taking pictures of his work, posting them online, asking who it was by (as he initially did not sign) and offering various interpretations. “I saw my gugusses in their environment. I had put them on the wall and said what I had to say. But people would convey another image. They would put a frame, insert a character and create a sort of canvas. It was funny for me to see my gugusses differently, in situ.”
Street art is by its very nature contextual: putting up a piece on a wall alters the urban landscape. “What I like is the fact that, when I paste a “gugusse” on a wall, it’s unique. I create a shadow, and from that moment, the whole wall becomes a stage for my character. Creating perspective changes the wall into a canvas. It becomes part of my character.” The brown tint of the craft paper he uses blends in to the colour many Parisian walls are painted. “There’s nothing intentional, just like with the message. I just need to do it, that’s all. It’s like people who need to consult a shrink because it makes them feel better. It’s chance.” He tells us that street art allowed him to get out of his atelier and meet people: “when working in galleries, people come to see your work and it’s not the same crowd. Most people I see in the streets don’t go to galleries. It’s complementary, I guess. I see a much broader panel of viewers. Street art taught me a lot. It opened me up anyway”.
One of the traps some street artists are fearful of falling in is pleasing their ‘audience’ by serving them the same patterns or narratives over and over again. When asked about this, as well as the impact working in the street has had on his work, Hérard tells us he doesn’t plan on painting buoys his whole life. “The work I do in the street shouldn’t impair my work as an artist in general. I need to be careful and feel free to do what I want to do. I don’t think it’s something that’s restraining me at the moment, but I think about it a lot, because people often talk to me about me about my early work. I try to always have a little reference, but constantly offer something new,” he says.
Philippe Hérard was exposed to art as a child when, following an accident in which he broke his leg, he was immobilised. One of his great uncles who happened to be a painter and a priest visited him during his recovery and initiated him to drawing. “I liked it, I felt it in my guts and from that moment on, I only did that.” Instead of going to summer camps like other thirteen-year-olds, Hérard would join his uncle in his 4L (a very typical Renault-built car from the 60’s) and paint landscapes along the Marne River, still life and wood-timbered houses. With this teaching, he gained an appreciation for impressionists and “classic” painters. After a short time spent in school, he came to Paris and studied illustration/design. Later, he worked with advertising agencies, but eventually quit to paint full time. He decided to stay in Paris, after developing a strong attachment to the capital, and later to Belleville. Hérard has been part of the Association des Artistes de Belleville for two years, and has taken part in the annual Portes Ouvertes des Ateliers des Artistes de Belleville. “I told myself, after 20 years, I wanted to sign up and participate in a local activity, to be stamped.” In December 2014, he exposed some of his work at the gallery, Le cabinet d’amateur, in the 11th, alongside Levalet, Ender, Codex Urbanus, and others: “I discovered their work, and then I met them. I wanted to share with them on a professional level.”
Apart from these local roots, we asked him about his work that has been pasted around the world, and if he adapted his message to the places he travelled to. He smiled and told us, “I don’t travel at all. People paste up my work in other places. It all stemmed from Eric Maréchal. He pastes up pieces all over the world. Now, he has an association; he only pastes things in difficult places like refugee camps or slums, to bring art into places where there isn’t any. People learned about this by word of mouth, and they come and find me and tell me they’re going abroad. They paste up my work and send me photos of it. I find it awesome, because without leaving home, I have my buoys in Tibet or God knows where.”
To see more of Philippe Hérard’s work, visit Joël Knafo gallery (11 September – 10 October 2015).
To learn more about Eric Maréchal and The Art Fabric: theartfabric.com