“The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal”

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London Calling talked to street artist Mr. Brainwash at the opening of his new London show ‘Keep Smiling’.

Thierry Guetta, the French-born Los Angeles based artist behind the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash, is a controversial figure in the world of street art. He shot to fame almost by accident when he was introduced to the world in Banksy's Oscar nominated documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop, where Thierry starts out as the filmmaker with a passion for following street artists he admires and ends up reinventing himself as an artist in his own right. His friendship with the elusive Banksy led to a myriad of legends and speculations: some people believe Mr. Brainwash is Banksy, some think he is Banksy's greatest creation yet, and quite a few people think he is just an elaborate prankster. Whatever the truth may be, one thing is for sure: Thierry is having the time of his life keeping all the legends afloat and the art world a little bit puzzled.

Mr Brainwash - images courtesy Darren Gerrish / Maddox Gallery

At the entrance of the gallery, there is a sign bearing the famous Picasso quote: “The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal” - only the name Picasso has been crossed out and replaced with Banksy. In line with Picasso’s belief that artists are not the ones who think and analyse and have lofty ideas and every intention of creating but really are those that stop thinking and just get out and make, Mr. Brainwash creates, relentlessly and incessantly. One of his favourite phrases he uses in conversation is ‘make it happen’. It is a huge collection of work he is showing in London, spread over all three Maddox Gallery spaces across the city. It is a body of work created over 10 years, from 2008 to the brand new neons from 2018. Keep Smiling is his first UK exhibition for six years.

His work feels instantly familiar, heavily quoting the most iconic popular artists from Warhol to Keith Harring, Picasso, Basquiat and Koons. The new neons are reminiscent of Tracey Emin but boast decidedly positive messages. Is his work paying homage to these great artists? “Absolutely!” he affirms, “I do what I love.” Everything Thierry says or does is bursting with positivity. “Incredible weather! I have never seen London this beautiful!" is how he starts the conversation. His show is called Keep Smiling because he believes the art world is taking everything way too seriously. “In this world today we need a little happiness. I just want to bring some love and some fun and a smile to people and show them that life is beautiful. It can be done. You can have imagination and you can make it happen.” Keep Smiling is injected with his trademark undercurrent of mischief, humour and optimism and a cartoonish take on the historical, altering and playfully subverting classic images with an injection of contemporary humour and commentary.

Mr Brainwash - images courtesy Darren Gerrish / Maddox Gallery

Apart from the new neons that are installed on mirrors and splattered with paint, the collection consists of plenty of well-known paintings playfully mixed together: Renoir with Picasso, Rembrandt with Basquiat, the old with the new. “All these artists that I enjoy come together”, he rejoices, and follows up with a little story: “Yesterday I met somebody selling one of the real Picassos for 20 million dollars. And I said, look, my piece is not just a Picasso it’s a Renoir and Picasso in one! In your world it cannot exist, in my world it can. We can make anything happen in my world.”

Along with the show, he also created a new mural for London, at the corner of Ledbury Road. The oversized old oil painting by Rembrandt is mixed with a Basquiat head and took him two days to create. Any thoughts behind choosing this work? “I just thought it was fun. Art has no limits”, is his simple explanation. “I will never be able to own a Picasso or a Rembrandt, so I wanted to mix the two worlds, the past and the future together and “Brainwash” them.”

So did he meet his friend Banksy while in London? “Maybe”, is the simple answer. Keeping the mystery alive.

Mr. Brainwash ‘Keep Smiling’ is at Maddox Gallery, Westbourne Grove & Maddox Gallery, Mayfair 20 April - 14 May.