True to his name, Mr. Brainwash speaks in riddles, works nonstop and likes to borrow from other artists.
The rules-breaking graffiti artist has temporarily shelved plans for a 10-year anniversary show to curate “It’s a Thing,” a pop-up gallery and interactive experience at the Starrett-Lehigh building. With about 20,000 square feet provided by RXR Realty, the two-week tickets-required installation will benefit cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (A streetfront pop-up gallery is open at no charge.) During a recent walk-through, Brainwash, whose given name is Thierry Guetta, said he needed some convincing. Enter cancer survivor and “It’s a Thing” founder Nicola Stephenson, who just kept knocking at his door. Her organization is focused on changing perceptions and raising funds for head and neck cancer. During a preview of the kaleidoscopic installation, she said her initial ask fell flat. “He told me whatever you’re asking me, ‘The answer is no.’”
But her perseverance paid off and once he agreed, he was all-in. In the streetfront gallery, visitors will find a multicolored balloon-laden area that is meant to be like walking through a gumball machine, and a bank of vintage typewriters to spell out whatever they want to tell the world. Afterward, those pages will be spooled through artistically arranged typewriters nearby for others to consider. Another area houses 24 chairs lined as though they are in a classroom with rotary-style telephones. Each telephone receiver is imprinted with a wish that “callers” are meant to consider, while they take in the sweeping view of the Hudson River and the West Side Rail Yards.
An adjacent space is designed to be more of a lounge, laden with old toys in an amusement parklike glass case, a bookcase with oldies but goodies, stacks of old-school cameras are piled up and boom boxes are arranged near the windows. Haphazard as it sounds, somehow it all adds up, or maybe that is a result of too much time with Brainwash. “I just don’t do things normally like anybody else. I just go above, above the limit. If I would work another month, I would take the whole building,” he said. “I feel like I’m here just to help. They’re here to change the world. I haven’t done the [cancer screening] test, but I am going to do it. It’s very simple. It takes a minute to do.”
Motivated by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, René Magritte and Vincent Van Gogh — artists whose works were largely unappreciated during their lifetimes — Brainwash doesn’t worry about being misunderstood. “Art is freedom. That’s what it is. Anybody who does art is about to be happy,” he said. “There is no judgment, there are people who judge. They’re allowed. It’s no problem, but you cannot let them stop you from doing what you want to be free.”
Ten years ago he broke into the art scene by staging his own show — with zero assistance from a gallery — with a 60,000-square-foot space. The documentary about his self-made fame, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” fueled further interest. That film was 12 years in the making and a second one is in the works. Two cameramen trailed his every move during the preview. His solo show will be held next year and life-affirming books are part of his new year’s plan. “Life is one day at a time. Every day is a new day. The only thing you can do is to become a better person to respect people better — your father, mother, friends, lovers, people next to you — it’s not about millions. What do you do with it?” Brainwash said.
Happy to just eat three or four times a day, he said, “Art cannot be criticized because every mistake is a new creation.”
Although some fashion brands have offered him “big checks” to collaborate, he said he declined those that weren’t for him. Ray-Ban, Nike and Levi’s were exceptions since he wears those brands, as his black Levi’s and Nikes indicated. Mercedes and Rolls-Royce are other brands he has worked with and recently he teamed with Joe & The Juice. “I feel like if I am going to do a collaboration at this point in my life. It has to be big and strong. I cannot do 10 of them. I can do one or two — just what I need.”
Not interested in naming artist friends for fear of forgetting any, Brainwash did mention his doing a family portrait for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s Bernard Arnault and having celebrated New Year’s with Kering’s François-Henri Pinault and Salma Hayek in St. Barth’s years ago. That encounter sprang from a chance encounter with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, who had visited his studio two weeks earlier. Thursday he will fly to Paris for the wedding of Sidney Toledo’s daughter Ines. “I have to. I promised her.” he said with a smile. Numerous album covers for Madonna led to commissioned work for Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana — individually and together. Calling fashion “very powerful,” he feels “fashion, music and art” are the way, and a collaboration intrigues him. “One of these days, I’m going to play with it,” he said.
Asked about the Banksy sale at Sotheby’s where the painting was shredded immediately after it was sold, Brainwash said, “I think it’s incredible. It’s always clever. It’s a genius. Because everybody in the world is talking about it. Everybody is like, ‘Ah,’ ‘Eh.’” Some people work all their lives trying to become something, and some people think about trying to be clever and they put them on the side little by little.”
Asked if he knows Banksy personally, the artist said, “This I cannot talk to you about.”
Asked about those who say that Brainwash is Banksy, he said, “I don’t know. If I tell you no, you’re going to tell me yes. If I tell you yes, you’re going to tell me no. In reality, what’s important of it? Is it important? The importance is that life is a play, like a show — it’s ‘How will you play it?’ And time will tell.”