“Frères humains /Brother humans”
Text written for the solo show catalogue edited in 2006, Galerie Alain Le Gaillard, Paris, FR
Do you sometimes wonder about the supposedly revolutionary virtues of contemporary art? Are you utterly convinced of their subversive efficiency or do you feign a redemptive naivety in this domain?
This is what I think: these days, preferring a critical dimension in artworks is a last-ditched attempt to connect our sterile and anemic era to the tumultuous spirit of the first avant-garde movements. Political commitment among artists was then a relatively new position, which entailed an element of risk, such as being locked up. Today, this commitment is more a cliché of art discourse, professed by subsidized creators who, compared with their illustrious predecessors, don’t risk much. Today, vaunting a subversive, leftwing dimension within an art market that has never been so capitalist, is no longer very meaningful and most of the time turns out to be no more than a sales pitch. On one side, there are artists who can’t deal with their useless status; and on the other, collectors who feel guilty (if only unconsciously) for being financially comfortable… Just before the year 1000, rich people who feared the cataclysm heralded by the end of the millennium, paid fortunes to a few unscrupulous prelates to ensure that their souls, thanks to this last-minute generosity, would go straight to heaven. This phenomenon was known as the “traffic of indulgence.” There is something akin to the traffic of indulgence and the thirst for redemption in the art world’s obsession with subversive content in art.
I’m sorry to say it but the economic “reality” of the art world does not square with the demands shouted from the rooftops by many artists. Most art that is “socially critical” is a fantastic, incredibly hypocritical game of dupes, no more, no less. This is nothing new. The game of artistic subversion is skewed; and the art world, even when it pretends compassion for a host of distant socio-political problems, generally does not know much about the outside world, starting with the one laid out downstairs from where it lives.
It would probably not occur to Julien Beneyton to present himself as a “critical, politically committed” artist. It would probably annoy him if someone decided to label him that way. Yet, because of the subjects he has chosen to represent, he could easily stake a claim to this very fashionable status. No doubt he does not out of modesty.
Beneyton paints, among other things, people that societies in so-called developed countries (in Paris, New York, Warsaw…) do not want to see or barely tolerate: bums, homeless people, young Blacks and Arabs, rappers whose music Julien listens to constantly, etc. But while today’s subversives claim to defend social categories (abstract by nature), he chooses to paint individuals. Beneyton responds to the hackneyed clichés of critical art with an endeavor to re-humanize, by giving faces back a name and a personal history. His paintings are portraits that result, above all, from an encounter, a discussion with the model, then a photo shoot if the person agrees to it. The many photographs serve as sketches for the painting. The artist accumulates details that will be clues to the subject’s personality.
There is, for example, J-roc, a young, black New Yorker who has already served two prison sentences for drug trafficking. He risks a life sentence if he gets caught a third time. So he tries to get his life together by rapping. The young man poses in front of Queensbridge. His expression is somber and melancholic. His hand grips his cell phone. Around him, everything seems threatening: the river’s black waters, the Caspar David Friedrich-style emaciated trees; even the buildings seem on hold, fragile and on the verge of collapse.
We also encounter Joanna, a young woman from the Bronx met at the PS1 art center in New York where she guards the exhibition spaces. Her big green eyes and tattooed neck betray an unstoppable rage for life. As for Tiger, the loony he ran into in a New York street, his grimacing face and eyes rolling in all directions leave no doubt that his spirit left for new horizons long ago.
There are also all the works that Beneyton devoted to those who may or may not still belong to the land of the living: the bums… A few years ago, he painted Josyane, an old lady in terrible shape who lived on the sidewalk at the Odéon crossroads. In a new series, the artist only kept the photos of bodies lying down and a few essential accessories (bottles, shoes, etc.), isolating them on a white background. The contrast between the immaculate surface and the pitiful state of the subjects further accentuates the effect of an infinite abyss of solitude with no hope of return.
However, let there be no mistake: Julien Beneyton never wallows in the sordid or indulgent. Yet again, he is definitely not about adopting the posture of an upholder of the law or the valiant white horseman: “In my painting, I show people, I don’t judge them.” The approach to models is delicate and respectful, but it is important to the artist to step back and retain his position of neutrality. He is not naïve and does not pretend his subjects are angels. He knows perfectly well that some of them are not shining examples of honesty.
Even so, we sense an element of tenderness in the way he describes meeting them. He chooses his models because he was touched by them and simply because they exist. They are human beings with a more or less chaotic, more or less interesting past. Just lives. Julien Beneyton is one of those artists who has chosen to paint the world not as it should be but as it is, in a raw manner, openly and with no moralizing. This is why there is a little Callot, a little Goya and a little Dix in the way he works. On the poetry front, there is François Villon who, if he had been alive today, would have surely been a rapper.
Julien Beneyton’s art reminds us what it means to be human. In a way, his painting, to paraphrase Alberti, is a window open onto the (real) world, a world populated with strangers, very different from the relatively protected world of family, a circle of acquaintances or a professional milieu. It is a riskier world where nobody can choose who he will run in to around the next corner. It seems simple but remember, at a time when art oscillates between the two extremes that are brainless glamour and distanced compassion, it is no mean feat. At the risk of embarrassing the artist, we can affirm that his is an authentic critical position. For real subversion is never literal. As its etymology suggests, it is underground. It avoids making a fuss, does not blow its own trumpet, is discreet and unpretentious. This is what ensures its efficiency.