“She ruined everything,”
it reads, edged across John Paul Fauves’s painting Fight Club (2018),
“and it made her very happy.”
The joys of disfiguration play a big part throughout the Costa Rican artist’s practice. While he trained in business, Fauves never stopped painting on the side, and after a period of hedonistic self-destruction – in a sense, giving his own life the “Picasso-treatment” – putting oil to canvas has finally become his primary occupation.
The artist chose his last name with reference to the French Fauvists, and their movement in the early 20th century, who outraged contemporary critics with their saturated colors and temperamental brushstrokes. And he shares in their wildness but in response to another century of art history.
"Fight Club" is based on an iconic double still of Helena Bonham Carter from David Fincher’s eponymous 1999 blockbuster. Like a windshield in the rain, her portrait has been blurred, but not only that: erratic white lines are scratched into the painting as if in an angry attempt vandaliseit, her lipstick is smeared and her cigarette farcical. Fincher’s is a film where nothing is quite like it seems, and the world of John Paul Fauves is the same. He achieves this disorienting effect by layering, cutting out, and collaging elements of pop-cultural images to a point where they become, not unrecognisable, but perversions of the familiar that ask the viewer to question what they think they know. “It made her very happy,” the painting says, and Fauves too finds a certain pleasure in wrecking havoc on our expectations.
Even in its playful cynicism, there is something unhinged about this picture that is genuinely disturbing. By inducing this sense of discomfort, Fauves means to direct a critique of the way capitalism distorts our identities. "Ghostly affair" (2017) is a family portrait in which child and father, completely disguised in white, have been given Nike-ticks for mouths, while a mother is a bright yellow Mickey Mouse silhouette with the eyes of a snake. Here, the world of advertisement and branding has not only entered a private sphere but is imprinted on our bodies, installed in our most intimate relations. Where Andy Warhol’s work was a comment on the mass-production of everyday commodities, John Paul Fauves said in a recent interview, “I am focussing on the mass-production of the individual.”
This is especially evident in a new body of work titled "No Profile Picture" (2017-ongoing). In this series, Fauves departs from the standardized image of a grey background with a white silhouette that appears when social media users do not have a profile picture, or even more drastically, have left the network. “You are not you”, one painting postulates, immediately prompting the question “who am I, then?”. What follows is a series of options: Elvis Presley on tropical wallpaper? Riffs on Picasso, Matisse, Richter adorned with the flowers of Andy Warhol? Image-based online culture simply asks us to take our pick.
That we can style ourselves in this way, Fauves seems to suggest, means that we can be at once anyone and no-one at all. But he also understands the complexity of what that means. In a planned performance for an upcoming exhibition in Taiwan, he is taking painting into the expanded field, asking viewers to wear paper masks. While everyone will become anonymous, the masks will also democratize the room, and create individual spaces of introspection. In the work of John Paul Fauves, then, defacement – whether as white mask or his signature bold patchwork of high and low scraps of culture – is both a loss of personality, and a place to hide; an unnerving prospect for identity, and a wild and colorful game.
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