L.A. 'Street Artist' Mr. Brainwash Takes Manhattan (With a Velvet Rope, Of Course)

By Barbara Celis

David Bowie, U2, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones. What could they possibly be doing together in the Meatpacking district of New York yesterday? Just hanging out at a party with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Damien Hirst and Barack Obama. Kind of.

Slash, by Mr. Brainwash
Slash, by Mr. Brainwash

They were actually all portraits from controversial LA "street artist" Mr. Brainwash's opening party. The artist, who LA Weekly profiled in a cover story in 2008 and who continues to be a much-discussed figure after becoming the star of Banksy's documentary Exit through the Gift Shop (which premiered in Sundance and was screened again at the Berlinale yesterday), put all of them into canvases made with old broken records and placed them into a 15,000 square feet space. Their gigantic images keep company with other immortal music stars such as Michael Jackson, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, or Pink Floyd, among others.

Mr. Brainwash in the flesh
Mr. Brainwash in the flesh

The title of the show? Icons. The feeling of the show? A Warholian art revival with walls filled up with dozens of replicant Madonna images, as in Warhol's Campbell's Soup series, so much so that it could be difficult to say if the whole thing is just a joke or Mr. Brainwash really believes he is 'an original'. To underline his artistic personality, though, all the silkscreens were colored with spray paint or had some additional details. Judging by the crowds that lined around the block starting at 5 a.m. to get a hold of one of the 300 limited edition prints that he was giving for free in the afternoon, people believe he is the real deal.

MJ in vinyl
MJ in vinyl

"Do you think Warhol did it the same way I did it? No, so it's not the same thing. It's 2010. I had to work a lot to do this. I did the cover of Madonna's album Celebration and I had to work very hard to get the right one. I had to try many things, and this is the first time that I show what I did," the artist told me during a private opening party last Thursday. That event was organized by a well-known PR agency, which created the right environment for it to be confused with a typical celebrity event: famous guests, an endless line at the door, and the always-annoying velvet rope. Art openings used to be free from that exasperating velvet rope plague. Not anymore. The trend has reached another level: Artists as celebrities who perform beyond their own art. Mr. Brainwash is embracing -- or shall we say consolidating? -- the craze.

The Lizard King, Brainwashed
The Lizard King, Brainwashed

Madonna chose him after he became a sensation in 2008 for his first show ever, Life is Beautiful, in Los Angeles, fully and publicly supported by Banksy, the politically- and socially-concerned British street artist whose pieces, in an ironic 21st Century twist, are coveted by collectors now. The movie Exit through the Gift Shop points the camera at Mr. Brainwash, who filmed street artists for over a decade. A movie inside the movie -- and lots of irony about the art market. Banksy was actually the one who advised him to put down the camera and start making art. Why not? The art world seems to be open to everything these days, and apparently with a good marketing campaign, you can take over the world. And the money.

A Brainwash homage to Andy Warhol
A Brainwash homage to Andy Warhol

That first LA show was a commercial success, and his second one, judging by the red dots that Mr. Brainwash himself placed on his canvases during the private opening night, will be, too. According to one of his buyers, who preferred to remain anonymous and who spent at least $50,000 in one of the musicians' icons canvases: "It doesn't matter if he is good or bad. He has the right connections, and that's why I am buying. Plus, I like him." The organization of the show was totally independent, but among the guests in attendance was Rino Maddaloni, the owner of Opera Gallery in New York, who sells Brainwash's pieces and spoke clearly about how the art world works today: "Does he sell? Yes. Then, he is good. Is he good? Yes, because he sells."

Billie Holliday, brainwashed.
Billie Holliday, brainwashed.

Mr. Brainwash, whose real name is Thierry Guetta, could be seen on Thursday posing for pictures behind his dark glasses and playing around with the photographers as a professional of the entertainment business, an icon among his Icons. Not only musicians were on the walls: Tom Ford, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and the Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg, "a genius", were also on display. "I was coming to New York, so I thought I should do a show about icons. There are so many that they couldn't possibly fit in here. This is just the first in a series. I will keep doing them," said the new art icon.

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