JR has been covering the world with his art — and Cincinnati is next.
The 30-year-old French street artist has pasted his monumental photographic-portrait posters in some unusual places (and not always with official permission): on the sides of buses in the African nation of Sierra Leone, on the rooftop of a Palestinian building in the West Bank city of Nablus, along the old and weathered city walls of Havana, in a slum town outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia and more.
The idea of this idealist’s/activist’s work is to empower and humanize his subjects — often disenfranchised and alienated — by pasting their pictures to the infrastructure of their often-impoverished environment.
He has quickly become famous for it. JR, who is now based in Paris and New York, was even the subject of a recent HBO documentary. And last week he was doing his work in one of his most unusual sites yet — on the gallery walls of Downtown’s Contemporary Arts Center, preparing for an exhibition that opens Friday night and continues through Feb. 2, 2014. Not that Cincinnati is more exotic than any of those other places, but he has never had a solo show in a U.S. museum before.
So this museum show is a new experience for JR. It is primarily an overview — he generally focuses on specific projects — although he’ll wrap the building’s exterior with new work. There will also be a Cincinnati community project involving a traveling photography van.
“When you do what I’m going to do here, it’s much more than just the photos,” he says. “Suddenly it actually gives you a full picture of the projects. Because of the space I’ve been given, this show can really take people throughout the whole projects and let them decide if they ever want to participate or get involved.”
Wearing a black pork pie-style hat, thick glasses and an almost-Yves Klein-blue jacket zipped up into a turtleneck, the artist is taking a break from his perch atop CAC scaffolding to chat. He is sitting at a conference-room table, talking very fast. Up on the scaffolding, he had been applying posters to the wall from his celebrated 2007 Face2Face project.
The project was designed to make those in a sometimes-adversarial relationship see their common humanity. And that concept is behind his other individual projects such as Women Are Heroes, The Wrinkles of the City, Portrait of a Generation and the current worldwide Inside Out project.
The Cincinnati show will include some ephemera — such as the camera he found on a Paris subway that started his career. But it is designed to chart the progression of his work. And it has its controversial elements. In one room, visitors are greeted by the large photograph of a young man pointing a gun toward them. Well, actually, it’s a video camera, but it can be mistaken for a gun … and has been.
It dates from 2004 and was the most memorable image from the project that jump-started his career — Portrait of a Generation. He went into some of the tougher, poorer suburban Paris housing projects to photograph the youth and then paste the images on walls. It became prophetic when the very areas where JR worked were hit by riots in 2005.
“From there, I decided to make a job of being an artist,” he says.
For Inside Out, JR is creating posters based on photo submissions, free for anyone in the world to make, and asks recipients to paste theirs publicly. So far, he says, 150,000-160,000 people have done so. In 2011, he won the $100,000 TED Prize — for ideas worth spreading — for the project. (The traveling photo van is a variation. People can have portraits taken for free and then get 36-by-53-inch posters on the spot suitable for pasting.)
JR says this project raised some eyebrows at first. “It sounded weird for a lot of people — ‘How can you give posters to anyone in world and free?’ There were people who thought it would be the end of a career for me.
“But it was the beginning because I have exchanges with so many people,” he says. “I realize it’s not really about the poster, or how nice the image. It’s about creating interaction between people.”
Contemporary Arts Center’s JR show formally opens Friday night with an 8 p.m. reception free for members and $10 for non-members. JR will speak to members only at 7 p.m. The show’s first full day is Saturday, with a noon tour with JR curator Pedro Alonzo.
From Thursday, Sept. 19, through Tuesday, Sept. 23, he will be bringing his Inside Out photo van (see story) to Cincinnati to make free suitable-for-pasting portraits for people:
10 a.m.-3 p.m.: Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). From noon - 1 p.m., there will be a Lunch Beat pop-up dance party at CAC. 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, contemporaryartscenter.org.
7 p.m.: At CAC for opening night. Members will get the first opportunity; non-members – who must pay a $10 admission to attend – come next. 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, contemporaryartscenter.org.
10 a.m-2 p.m.: Rabbit Hash, Ky. 10021 Lower River Road, Rabbit Hash, Ky., rabbithash.com.
10 a.m.-3 p.m.: Findlay Market. 118 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine, findlaymarket.org.
Monday & Tuesday
10 a.m.-3 p.m.: Fountain Square. 520 Vine St., Downtown, myfountainsquare.com.
There will be Inside Out installations at all locations. For more info, visit contemporaryartscenter.org.
opens Friday at the Contemporary Arts Center with a 7 p.m. members-only artist talk followed by an opening celebration ($10 non-members) at 8 p.m. Exhibit is up through Feb. 2, 2014. Go to contemporaryartscenter.org/JR for details.