Meet French graffiti collective Moderne Jazz
'Allez La France!' brings together four artists at Saatchi Yates gallery in London, presenting new forms of abstract expressionism.
Allez La France! -- a new exhibition in London that spotlights a collective of four artists who met between Marseille and Paris -- takes its title from the rallying cry of French football fans. Inside the show, at the new Saatchi Yates gallery in Mayfair, Jin Angdoo, Mathieu Julien, Hams Klemens and Kevin Pinsembert all present large scale paintings that, despite sharing no literal connection to the French national football team, do echo, or at least question, notions of French culture and its artistic traditions.
It’s the first time the four artists have shown their work together in a gallery space — normally favouring presentations that exist outside the typical frameworks of the art world. Moderne Jazz, the street art collective they all became part of, create large murals on walls, bridges and construction sites and, as such, the artists have treated Allez La France! as an extension of their everyday practice; imagining these typical locations as their canvases.
“The city is big — the painting is big,” says art historian Larissa Kikol, who spoke with i-D France earlier this week. “The new generation no longer bears the weight of the legacy of twentieth-century interpretations and its cultural policies. Thanks to their predecessors, they can engage in a radical exploration of a new lightness, the physical joy of the size of their shapes, the enjoyment of the intensity of colours, and the vibrant gestures of the body.”
Here, the four artists discuss how their shared love of graffiti brought them all the way to a west London gallery.
Hams Klemens was born and raised in Marseille. He did a “tour” of art schools -- Annecy, Brest, Strasbourg -- when he was younger, without ever finishing any of the courses. ”At the beginning of my youth, I became strongly interested in graffiti,” he says. “My cousin, who had been doing it for a while, drew my name out of tag letters. I was impressed. That same week, I looked for a spray can, went out in my street and tagged ‘Way’ 20 meters from my front door.”
Since that first tag, Hams says, very little has changed about his practice. “Letters are still at the centre of my painting,” he says. “But there has been an evolution. For many years I saw the letter as a graphic sign, then it transformed into a mass, and into matter. Before, I drew the letter from the outside, now I construct it from the inside.”
The scale of his work has also grown significantly. “Before, I painted with my arm's length, then I built myself extensions; poles with brushes on them. Instead of cans I used wall paint from the hardware store.” These days, anything can act as a brush for his work, “old mops from the street or sponges,” he says. “Sometimes I also take paint from construction sites, whatever is available at the time. All this allows me to paint large wall surfaces more efficiently and quickly. Aesthetically, it becomes more chaotic, rougher.”
Inspired by his work inside a seven-kilometre tunnel with an underground river running through it in Marseille, for Allez La France! Hams made all the paintings in the studio but tried to imagine the tunnel's atmosphere as much as possible. "I hung the canvas directly on the wall and found the same solitude again, between me and the resistance of the wall. Even if I didn't have as much water in the studio as there, I consoled myself with the bathtub that stands in the middle of the studio."
Hams Klemens' largest body of work exists in a tunnel underneath Marseille. Watch a film by Saatchi Yates on these epic paintings here.
Mathieu Julien is originally from Bordeaux. The artist has spent the last ten years or so in Paris but recently moved to America with fellow collective member Jin Angdoo. "I started painting my first graffiti probably close to 20 years ago," he says. "My practice on the wall never really changed; I have always painted in the same kind of chilled places, by day, with friends."
Like Hams, his work has evolved, growing more and more experimental as the years have passed. "Because it happened progressively, and also because I kept working with letters, I still see my paintings as graffitis."
As for his involvement with his fellow Allez La France! artists, Mathieu stresses the organic way their group bound together. "We made this collective with some other close friends around France a few years ago because we felt good together and somehow related in the way we paint and behave," he says. "Hams is in Marseille with some other friends of the crew, and Jin and I are now gone, but for years we would paint walls together next to a canal in Paris' suburb. I don't think I ever painted by myself; I like friends. Besides the nice part of doing fun activities with friends, it is greatly enriching as we share together a lot of what we find stimulating in various fields."
The pieces on display in this exhibition replicate the scale of his typical artworks." I tried to keep the same methodology as on walls in order to preserve the energy, emergency, qualities, mistakes of my graffitis." This was a challenge, he says -- "which I don't think I fully achieved". But seeing his paintings together with his friends in this vast gallery is "very exotic".
Jin Angdoo was born in South Korea but immigrated to the US in her teens. She's also lived in Italy, the Netherlands, of course, France, and has recently returned to the US with Mathieu. "After getting a degree in Design and Media Arts at UCLA, I focused on video and filmmaking and worked as a commercial director," she says. "Then I started painting for fun.
When Jin first began painting, it was more about the experience than the outcome. "It's because I started painting purely to have fun with friends," she says. "I liked being outside, under the sun, next to a canal, with friends, making jokes, picnic-ing on cheese and baguette, sharing paints and sprays, painting a common wall." When she thinks about painting, she doesn't often think of a studio (or "atelier") -- "maybe because I never really had an atelier before -- but I think about being at a wall with friends."
When it came to meeting fellow members of this collective, "I got lucky," Jin adds. "I met Mathieu Julien and tagged along to paint with him and his friends. This group of friends became Moderne Jazz. I was painting with them at the birth of it, so I somehow organically became a part of the crew. I definitely got in the crew with a friendship card than with my painting skills!" She learned to paint by watching the others and developed her taste by looking at what they liked. "Because of this beginning, painting has been a communal activity with friends, and I don't really know any other way."
Kevin Pinsembert was a cabinet maker apprentice who studied industrial design before he became a painter. Drawings turned to graffiti which eventually turned to canvases. Eventually, he was invited to paint with Moderne Jazz collective by Mathieu. "I started from early on trying to synthesise elements and assemble them into lines, resulting in a kind of still life containing architectures, objects, beings and memories," he says. "It is about developing a filter between the observed reality and the resulting painting."
The body of work selected for this exhibition "has been produced in a room in my flat during lockdown, at my atelier, or directly onto the walls," he says. "This in-between of both outdoors and a studio context creates a hybrid status contained within the painted object, that I feel is interesting."
‘Allez La France!’ is on view 3 March - 15 May 2021 at Saatchi Yates in London
All images courtesy the artist and Saatchi Yates