collage artist

︎ France
september 11, 2020

As always one of our first questions: where are you from and when and how did you start to explore art?

I’m a travelled French person. Born in Asia, where my parents lived and worked as expats. I arrived in Europe in the mid 70’s where I lived until the early 80’s when we moved again, to California for a few years. Came back as a teenager, my folks settled in Paris and I kept travelling and living abroad until 2018 when I finally came back to Paris with my newly-wedded wife.

I reckon my first significant art experience, apart from kindergarten dry pasta masterpieces, was in junior high school in Los Angeles where I befriended a Japanese kid who drew manga style comics. He had a drawing notebook that he filled like a fanzine, with imaginary articles, stories, music reports, album covers, show posters, ads and the likes.

His drawings were really funny and subversive and I quickly had my own notebook, trying my best to draw as well as him, still trying to this day!

He was my mentor in many ways, and we spent days goofing around, skateboarding, drawing and listening to Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys.

I know you have quite a diverse, especially for French standards, professional background. Do you have any formal art training though?

I have no art training apart from that. One day, his parents moved to another state and that was that. I kept drawing on my own, eventually my little sister got to emulation and started drawing in that same Americano-manga style. She later went to proper art school and became a talented plastic artist. I never followed that path, rather went to business studies to please my family’s expectations.

That was the time when skate and surf graphics were booming and I was really attracted by the many cool images that came out on tees, boards and especially stickers. I would cover everything with theses skate/surf stickers in my home, appliance, furniture, you name it.

I guess this was my first & early approach to working with adhesive, sticky stuff, which today has become my speciality, I really loved the transparent stickers as they were really easy to blend and mingle together. Nowadays I just create my own stickers with scotch tape.

Oh yeah I just remembered that I had art training in the past, but that was for Russian theatre so nothing to do with collage !

What originally drew you to collage?

I’m a trained actor and voice over actor, obviously not a 9 to 5 occupation, therefore providing me with a lot of spare time. I was working for a production company in London for a while, and when we weren’t in production I had plenty of time to fill in the office. So out of boredom really I started flipping through magazines and thought of applying scotch tape on the images and texts I liked, and then tearing it off to give me a brand new transparent sticker that I would apply on any surface around me. Then I thought of grouping all these « stickers » on a canvas, a heavy A4 paper, and that’s how it all started. 

I don’t consider my work collage as I don’t use any « colle » (glue), I prefer calling it montage.

How would you describe your work and collages in your own words?

Retro-kitsch analog montage!

I’ve seen some of your collages in real life. Online reproductions don’t give them justice. Would you mind describing the technique you use to create and the way you later display them?

My technique is similar to waxing, you know when people get hair removed in beauty salons: I source an image I like, lay transparent tape on it, and press hard for the adhesive to act and swoosh, tear it off!

That’s all I use, transparent adhesive tape and a bit of scissors.  Completely glue-less!

Unfortunately the chemical formula on the tape nowadays isn’t as strong as 10 years back so the tearing doesn’t work as much as it did, i.e. less paper and ink stay on the tape when I tear so I do use scissors a whole lot more these days. It changed my working method a bit, back in the days, my work was more of a throw-up, I would tear an image off and just place it anywhere I deemed right on my canvas. Today my work is more constructed and planned, images are more sourced.

All my originals are A4 size, sometime A3. Small stuff. And hard to display as it’s full of transparent tape that catches all the reflections. And tape doesn’t age well, it waves, dries and make your canvas concave.

I therefore scan all of my works to get rid of these tape related problems and then print them out in big, the bigger the better! I have never shown or sold an original.

Most of the pieces I have sold were printed on metallic photo paper and then mounted on dibond. Usually in 80x60cm size but also on larger 150x110cm pieces. The others were printed on canvas, metal, cotton, glass, ceramic… we can print on anything these days.

I totally agree with you that online reproductions do not give them any justice as they are so precisely detailed that one has to see them in big, a great incentive for me to have more exhibits!

How long do you usually work on a piece? Collage can be a rather quick and spontaneous medium – some people always finish in one sitting – or take forever. Your work seems to fall on the time-consuming end of the spectrum. Am I correct?

Partly. It depends on preparation. Like a stir fry. Either I prepare all my ingredients first or use my good old throw up method where I just flick through books and mags, and tear and stick as I progress. My recent pieces are once again more organized so I choose my big features and then apply the tear & stick technique to bind them all together.

The quickest pieces took me six hours to make but sometimes I get stuck, can’t find the right combination for an area of my canvas and thrive for 2 days!

And now a rather practical/technical question. You use a lot of tape in your work. Have you ever had problems with the adhesive affecting the paper? And if so, do you have any advice/tales of caution for people trying to work with tape?

As I mentioned earlier, tape has its flaws, but isn’t plastic just fantastic?!

All jokes aside, it does affect the paper one uses as canvas, I therefore work on 300g Black paper that is more resistant to concaving.

I keep my originals under a herbarium press so they stay flat forever. I also scan them as soon as they are finished to keep a hi-def master in digital.

But I wouldn’t consider myself a tape artist, such as Max Zorn for example,

I’m just a mere tape-transferer.

You use a lot of images from the 50s and 60s, pin-up girls, movie stills, and advertisements. What appeals to you about these images?

I mostly use people in my work, hardly any buildings, tools, instruments, vehicles, or other objects. Originally my aim was to glorify the kitsch iconography of these times of pulp fictions or man’s adventures books, film & roman noir, and retro advertising.

My first collection on exhibit in London & Paris was named « pin-ups vs tough guys » back in 2009. These images are more interesting to me than modern photos. If you look a century back, photography was an event, people stopped their activities and stood still to get their pics taken.

I mix theses old images with very contemporary images from fashion magazines but keep it subtle enough for anybody to notice!

But yes it definitely is a celebration of kitsch that I proudly claim responsibility for!

Can you see yourself working with entirely different imagery?

No! I prefer to stay in my kitsch comfort zone!

I’m kidding, I have been commissioned to reproduce famous paintings with my technique, reinterpreted some of Turner’s work, Caillebote, Picasso and others.

For these I mostly worked with colours and shades, no kitsch faces.

I have also worked with modern stock photos but it’s not my cup of tea to be honest, I find more charm in old photos or drawings.

Your collages are very densely “populated” – what’s your take on minimalism?

It creeps the hell out of me ! If I were a proper collagist I guess it would be part of my everyday work but I like to think of my creations as a full story, like a movie poster that shows all the cool scenes, a world of itself. My goal is to catch the viewer’s eye on one image and then through my storytelling take that eye to another and another image and in the end that eye is stuck looking at my creation for 10 minutes.

It definitely is a reflect of my personality, I have never considered a monochrome piece as Art but admire minimalist artists and their cheekiness as I am incapable of making a big tableau with hardly anything on it.

I sometimes do minimalist stuff, when Im invited to someone’s place I bring a bottle of champagne decorated with a small montage to cover the label. My wife and I make jam in our country house and I decorate the lid of the pots I give away too. But these are destined to the people I give them to, I sign them but do not keep any records of them. So if you want to see my minimalist work, you have to invite me for dinner at your place , or breakfast if you prefer jam!

Nevertheless a lot of my secondary work is minimalist, that’s when I put on my artistic director’s hat: as I am unable to use graphic software, I guide & ask the pros to cut « stencils » in my big tableaux with their digital tools, for example a skull or a butterfly’s silhouette filled with just a detail from a big tableau. I usually make tee-shirts with these stencils and they are interesting as each silhouette has its own life, its own little scene, ideal for tees…. or mugs!

Yet, using a popular photo editing tool, I manage on my own to crop « details tableaux » from my big pictures, and I like these smaller tableaux as they also create new worlds, new stories, certainly clearer and perhaps more readable than my big creations. But softwares & digital tools come in play for all this minimalism, so I consider it lesser work than my true original tape transfer work.

You have travelled a lot and lived in Cambodia for many years. Does this affect your work?

Cambodia is my country of expat birth. I have a strong link with the country as it was before the Khmer Rouge but it doesn’t affect my work at all as I focus more on Americana, (where I also lived as a teen, remember?).

I’m just back in France after living five years in Cambodia where I worked and lived on a tropical island, part of the « Survivor » TV shows production team for a while before landing me a daily thee-hours radio host job.

I went to live there in an attempt to find my roots, dig’em up, dry them and infuse them to see what buzz it would give me… but nothing happened!

Except, I met my soulmate there, got married and decided to come back to Europe to show my wife another world than the third-world tropical dictatorship she always knew.

If it weren’t for her, I’d still be riding my motorcycle everywhere around Southeast Asia with all the troubles that come with such rides...

Did you manage to do a lot of creative work while travelling? Are you one of those people that carry their materials with them wherever they go?

My mom worked as a stewardess in my youth, and our family benefited from very low airline and hotel prices, therefore we travelled everywhere in the world at every school holiday.

I continued travelling as a young adult but always in an immersive approach, stay in the country you visit for at least six months to understand and gain something different from the tourist places.

I find it a more interesting, and sometimes more dangerous way to embrace a new place.

I did collect a lot of material from my travels that I compiled along with travel pics in scrapbooks.

Yet my creative work is never constant, I sometimes work for six months and then nothing for three years. It’s not out of interest or a lack of inspiration, it’s just that life keeps me busy doing other stuff. But my studio is definitely nomadic, everything I need fits in a box that I can throw in the boot of my car and I just need a table and my tape dispenser to get started.

You have a very distinct style and way of working? Do you think it is important to try things you think you’re not good at? Or to stick with what works for you once you found it?

I have done some research to find peer tape transferers but it seems I am one the very few if not the only one to work that way. There are plenty of people working with tape transfer but I have never seen work that resembles mine. It is a strength if I know how to market it well. No pun intended but yes it sticks with me, I have come up with many different techniques to use tape and am always eager to show anyone the simplicity of the trade, but not my secrets!

What are your working on currently?

My last and current collection is named « the devil is in the detail ». A part of it was shown in vintage festivals and in Barbizon, the mecca of realism, out of all places. The second part of this collection is mainly focused on film noir and I have been working on it for the last 4 months.

Do you have any plans for future projects?

I plan to go bigger! Proper gallery exhibits along with decorating full walls of shops, bars and venues.

I’m also working on covering buildings, but don’t want to say too much on that yet!

Francesco Fikesh 
Interview: Petra Zehner