WK Interact and the Dimensions of Fear

NYAB talks with French artist WK Interact about his current solo exhibition “Motion Portrait” and street art.

poster for WK Interact

WK Interact "Motion Portrait"

at Jonathan LeVine Gallery
in the Chelsea 20th area
This event has ended - (2009-06-27 - 2009-07-25)

In Interviews by Isabel Kirsch 2009-07-13 print

WK Interact is an illustrious figure in street art and has been an important influencer of what street art represents in New York City today. His images started popping up in the late ’90s in downtown New York: graphic black and white three-dimensional human figures, all engaged in some kind of extreme motion. The motion depicted can be violent, sexual, sarcastic, or funny. The illusion is created with a subtle technique that involves photography, drawing by hand, and then stretching the images with a Xerox.

WK’s conceptual approach has always started with finding the right location first, and then using urban architecture as part of the artwork to bring the image to life and tell a story that aims to produce strong emotions in the viewer. He prefers using corners and uneven surfaces instead of flat clean walls, and the streets of New York are perfect for that. His current show, “Motion Portrait,” at Jonathan LeVine presents a few examples of this distinctive style, but the core of the show consists of a series of twelve large-scale canvases portraying “12 Angry Men.”

WK Interact. Photo by Isabel Kirsch.

Canvas is a new medium for you, what has caused this change?
Maybe because I was bored with my work so I had to find a new way to stimulate myself and enjoy what I do. In my eyes my work always had the problem of being too graphic, a bit too aesthetic and perfect, almost as a logo. I will always criticize my work to get away from that. When you paint something on a canvas a lot of things can go wrong, it’s very gestural and risky. The street also gives me that feeling. Doing these twelve portraits was a big challenge for me and I wanted to see if I am capable of doing it. I photographed twelve people and then rejected eight of them. The models were great but I wasn’t getting what I wanted so I had to redo them using new models because not all the people I used live in New York. My next challenge will be to see if I can do the same thing with women.

Who are the twelve men in the portraits? Do you have a personal connection to them?
All of them are friends who are involved in painting, martial arts, or fashion. They are photographers, sculptors, stylists, and they are all a bit crazy too. None of them is a model or likes to pose and have their picture taken. They all gave me a huge favor standing for portraits and working with me. And I think I kind of surprised them too when they saw the result. It was not what they expected, which I think is a good thing.

WK Interact, ''Sebastien,'' acrylic on canvas. 72 x 72 in. Courtesy Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

Just as most of my work on the street is based on film, this series was inspired by the movie “12 Angry Men.” I have been fascinated with this movie since I first watched it when I was about 16 years old. The movie touched me in the way “Blade Runner” touched me and propelled me to do that thing with the girl on roller blades. The original “12 Angry Men” is from 1957. It is about a black guy who is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. Back then it was a very political movie and I like that at the time they took a big risk to do it. The way the movie is shot is incredible, everything is shot inside, in black and white and there are some strong visual cues to set the mood, such as a fan and the humid weather. As another reference I also had planned to put a knife on a box, but it wasn’t appropriate for the size of the gallery.

The motion of the body that you depict has turned into emotion, specifically anger. What inspires the anger? Is there a personal background?
Just as for my other work this is inspired by living in New York, the struggle of it, the hard work, destruction, and fear. When painting these portraits I scared the hell out of myself. Each of them is simply based on a photo but when I painted them I felt like “wow, I am actually painting something that is more powerful than the image itself”. The amazing thing about art is the idea that you are capable of creating something that people can directly sense and experience. When I put figures up on the street I like to do it in a way that the viewer can sense the image, I want it to look like the figure is jumping on the viewer. When I faced the challenge of painting on a flat canvas, not on a three-dimensional object from the street, I had to figure out how I could convey the feeling of something is going to happen. How could I make it alive, vibrant and explosive, almost like an electro shock? If people can sense the energy and get the feeling, I did a good job.

WK Interact, ''99 Crosby Street,'' collage and mixed media on found door. 83 x 66 1/2 x 10 in. Courtesy Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

For these portraits you are using a specific technique, a “one chance” kind of thing, applying paint with a sponge and a brush and leaving the canvas raw in some places. On some it’s more a circular move, but on others it’s more an up and down stroke…
Like I said, if you’re good at something it’s great, but can you get better or do it differently? That’s why I played around with this motion. The most important thing is that I was painting on raw canvas. If the canvas was primed white I could always come back and retouch the parts that I don’t like, but with raw canvas there is absolutely no return. It’s a one time shot where you need to know when to stop and how to calculate every splash. It looks so simple but it’s quite complicated.

You should know this from doing martial arts. When you face an opponent you never know what’s going to happen, you think you know but you have to be able to anticipate anything and you have to study and use your senses. The more you train the more you will develop a sense that allows you to fight with your eyes closed. It’s the same thing with the canvas. I wanted to see if I can become part of the canvas.

WK Interact, ''Ludlow Street,'' collage and mixed media on found door. 80 x 48 x 7 in. Courtesy Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

Some of these guys look really scary…
All of them are very gentle and kind persons, they are not mean at all and I know them well. When they came to see me I basically told them that I would paint their inside, their dark side. Every human being has fear, you can control it but you need to be aware of it. If you are aware of it you can work with it and use it as a tool to stepping into something else. When I created these portraits I didn’t really want to make something bad or dark. I just wanted people to sense the actual piece, the texture and the brush as a simple gesture and show that something so simple can be very powerful.

Besides this gallery work, you are still doing street art, right? I’ve seen some pieces in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Yeah, I’ve been pretty active. I will be dropping these twelve pieces on the street in Brooklyn next week. I will reprint everything and I will make 24 pieces and put them back on the street as posters as a little gift for the city.

Isabel Kirsch

Isabel Kirsch. Isabel has been writing for various pop culture publications since the early 90s. She has published around 40 science fiction short stories in the Berlin-based magazine, Style 100. She later moved into the non-fiction realm of art and culture. She has co-edited two art books with street artists WK Interact (New York) and Jaybo aka Monk (Berlin/Paris). A New York resident since 1999, Isabel loves to stumble upon new and exciting, or touching artifacts in the city. Whether it's mutilated billboards or a fine art exhibition, she feels it's worth sharing if it punctures her habitual mental patterns. » See other writings

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