"I Really Cannot Express Myself With Colours" - Julien Vinet

Marie-Claire Grima - 15th July 2018

French artist Julien Vinet discusses the power of black and white, and the freedom he experienced as an artist working in Malta.

“I really cannot express myself with colours,” insists Julien Vinet. It seems like a paradoxical statement – when we meet, he is charming and gregarious, wearing a summery pastel-hued outfit, with faded pink espadrilles on his feet, and colourful bracelets and wristbands adorning his arms – a far cry from the gloomy Tim Burton-type you’d expect to make such a declaration. “I love colours – I wear them all the time,” he explains. “But in my work, I really cannot use them to express myself. To me, white is the sum of all colours and black is the rejection of all colours. Together, they encompass the whole spectrum. But it’s not really just black and white – it’s more like 50 shades of grey,” he adds mischievously.

Julien makes monochrome prints using Japanese ink and glue, which he first paints onto sheets of glass and then transfers onto paper. It’s a technique he has been perfecting since he was a teenage art student, an avid fan of the cartoonist Alberto Breccia. “I paint on the glass first, then I mix in the glue, and press the paper on it. I have some works where I paint everything at once, where everything on the paper is one long brush stroke. It’s all about texture, movement and composition.”

Julien Vinet

He says he loves the fact that he can never reproduce the same work twice. “If I do something and it looks nice on the glass and then I move it to paper, when I print it, it has a natural effect that I cannot replicate. As I go to press the paper on the glass, it’s going to impact how the ink will look. If I press very hard, the ink is going to spread. I didn’t press this one this hard,” he says, gesturing towards one of the prints hanging in the Lily Agius Gallery, where he held his final show in Malta. “It is unique and I cannot correct it. I mix different kinds of pressure on the paper. They’re all different – it’s impossible to do the same thing twice.”

Vinet’s latest project involves the floors of abandoned houses. “I moved away from glass for this – instead, I’ve been using tiles. I study the path of people in a room and I record their movements – a phantasmic, ghostly approach – then I reproduce the path with my strokes. In an abandoned house, there are all sorts of dust and debris, even dead creatures sometimes – it all goes into the artwork. Then I apply the glue, and what is left emerges. There are different processes that I use, but creation is always the same – there will be things that you’re happy with, but others that you could have done better. An artist always has to evolve – it cannot always be the same thing.”

Julien Vinet

The Japanese influence on his work extends far beyond the ink and paper he uses. Following studies in Fine Arts at Paris VIII and Visual Communications at Jean Trubert Art School, Vinet discovered the Maison de la Culture du Japon à Paris, a library in the heart of the French capital dedicated to Japanese culture. “Student life in Paris is very much centred on libraries – I would spend my time between the Georges Pompidou Centre library, and the Maison de la Culture, watching movies and reading books there.”

The legendary film-maker Akira Kurosawa and his strong approach to black and white was one of the key influences on the young Vinet. “There’s this incredible story about Kurosawa where he’s on a set of a film – the set designer had brought him a green lamp, when he had asked for a red one. Kurosawa insisted on the red lamp, and the designer questioned why this mattered so much – after all, the film would be in black and white. “No, no,” Kurosawa insisted, “the whole spectrum of colour is visible through black and white. If I asked for a red lamp, it’s because I needed it.” Kurosawa’s work is a masterclass in actually seeing the invisible and feeling the things that the artist wants you to feel through his own appreciation of the world and his process.”

Another Japanese element that strongly influenced Vinet is the art of calligraphy. “Calligraphy in Japan is normally a kanji, an ideogram that any Japanese person can read. They’ll go to an exhibition and say “yes, it’s well written.” Contemporary calligraphers in Japan are bucking this trend. They’ll write it so randomly that nobody can read it, or they’ll write an old character that’s not used anymore, so that few people will be able to read it. When you lose the legibility, you can focus on the composition – the strengths of the brush stroke.”

Julien Vinet

The loss of legibility is essential to Vinet’s latest work, as he leans more fully into abstraction. “My work ten years ago was far more didactic, and figurative. The fact that I really embraced abstraction is a huge step – it’s where I can actually really go for a transcription of what I feel. Figurative is beautiful, it’s elegant, it’s cool, and there’s always a story behind it. As human beings, figurative art is usually easier for people to look at – we have this voyeuristic tendency where we enjoy looking at others. But abstraction pushes the people beyond their own limits when it comes to just feeling art. It’s difficult for people – not to get it, because there’s nothing to get – but to go through it. It’s more challenging, and that’s exactly what I love. As an artist, becoming confident and able enough to be more challenging was a huge step.”

Vinet moved to Malta in 2010 after eight years in his beloved Japan. His final exhibition at the Lily Agius Gallery in Sliema last month was titled Sssortie, and it appears to be loaded with meaning; the word in French can mean anything from exit to release, to voyage, to attack, while the triple S of the title seems to allude to the sinuous, snake-like brushstrokes that have become Vinet’s hallmarks. Like the mythical ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, the exhibition is both an ending and a beginning, infinity and wholeness, an exit and a release. He is now moving to fresh pastures in Berlin, to widen the spectrum of his prospects and projects. “I have gallerists in different countries – Paris, Tokyo, Malta – but they’re not doing international art fairs – it’s easier to get established if you’re in Berlin. Normally, galleries are interested in you if collectors are interested in you, and there are simply more galleries, more collectors and more people in Berlin.”

Julien Vinet

However, his time on the island had an important effect on his work, in more than one way. “First of all, the light here has had a huge effect on me. My work in Japan was totally different – it would focus on the black. I would usually create negatives; the black would be white and the white would be black. Since I came to Malta, the idea of white became the pedestal of the recreation of my work, isolating subjects on this absence of colour or using it as an equilibration concept.”

“The second impact that Malta has had on my work is that I’ve been freer in what I want to do, even if it’s more difficult to do it. When I was in Japan, I needed to have economical resources. Artists in Japan have to be rich. You have to rent out a gallery – they don’t offer you the space – and one week can cost you anything from €500 to €800. It’s a huge amount of money. When you have this economical Damocles sword over your head, it’s tiring – you have to be efficient, which is not what an artist should be. I would never have done an exhibition like this in Japan. Because life in Malta is cheap – well, used to be cheap – it gave me a lot of freedom.”

He cites Austin Camilleri, Aaron Bezzina, Kane Cali, Maxine Attard and Duška Malešević among his favourite Malta-based artists, and says that the arts scene in Malta is a lot different to how it was around a decade ago. “Back then, there were not as many working artists as there are now. There were the old-school artists that were in place, of course, but now you have an emergent, blossoming crop of so many new artists. What’s interesting is that this movement is not just happening in Valletta or Sliema, it’s all around the island. Artists in Malta are decentralising, and it’s putting a lot of new strength into their work.”

This interview originally appeared in The Commercial Courier


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