Artless: Elephant founder Marc Valli on why today's artists are going back to basics

13 October 2016

As founder of magazines Elephant and Graphic, and retailer Magma, author and critic Marc Valli has an established flair for talent-spotting. For this beautifully curated new book, Artless: Art and Illustration by Simple Means, co-authored with writer Amandas Ong, the duo have picked out 49 contemporary artists with a deftness for creating exciting work using the most basic of tools. Here, in an exclusive extract from the book, Marc explains why he believes these artists are returning to “Art School Year Zero”.

The battle against slickness

As visual landscapes around us grow ever slicker and more complex, with layers upon layers of images and interfaces merging into one another, it comes as no surprise that artists today are inclined to head in the opposite direction, looking for less sophisticated, more direct and spontaneous means of expressing themselves. In a world in which every available surface (and then every corner and square inch within that surface) has been carefully planned and designed to produce some kind of effect upon our retinas and our brains (and our wallets), a new generation of artists is growing ever more determined to embrace the idea of an art ‘carte blanche’. Art School Year Zero: picking up a piece of paper and a few pens or pencils or crayons (sometimes going even further back into their own creative infancy and applying those to walls and furniture) to rediscover what it actually means to create an image and express something through visual means – rediscovering a sense of urgency, and intimacy, in their work. Today, for most of us, computers and image-making software have become synonymous with “the office” and “paying the rent”, whereas actually to sit down and draw something, paper and pencils in hand, has come to stand for creative freedom, making art in a disinterested manner, within one’s own intimate, imaginary sphere.

A pencil with a purpose

But then there are pretty down-to-earth reasons why, amid the global corporate businesses that make up the art world and the communications industries, one may want to start with something like a box of crayons. As a young artist you are hardly going to be able to compete with Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor or Andreas Gursky in terms of putting together complex large-scale works. But you may stand a good chance with a pencil in hand – a very good chance against Hirst or Kapoor.

The New York-based French artist Damien Florébert Cuypers describes his love of high-quality crayons, which he discovered when his lifestyle started to become more nomadic: ‘I no longer needed complicated materials or water, just crayons and papers, the simplest of things. I love carrying these little boxes of bright colours with me’.

Cuypers will often draw characters at catwalk shows, and it is tempting to compare the directness and spontaneity of his work with that of early photographers such as Atget and Lartigue, and the freedom and compositional licence of portable-camera pioneers such as Beaton and Cartier-Bresson. I love the sense of sheer fun in the work of these photographers, and this is what I also find in the drawings in this book: the feeling that one is taking one’s first steps in the world, and that this vast space is one’s playground, filled with a sense of freshness and renewed surprise.


Artless: Simon Landrein


Artless: Tiziana Jill Beck


Artless: Misaki Kawai

What is ‘artless’?

It may have occurred to you that, for more than 15 years already, a number of successful artists have been hard at work creating explicitly (and deceivingly) unsophisticated works: the examples of Raymond Pettibon, Paul Davis, David Shrigley, Stefan Marx or the artist-poet-skateboarder Mark Gonzales all spring to mind. Deeply ingrained in the art world, and with museum retrospectives to their name, Pettibon and Shrigley have both stubbornly engaged in a self-conscious refusal of conventional aesthetic canons in favour of different strategies of art creation, disarming viewers with their supposed pictorial naivety, often with a large pinch of humour and social critique, and many layers of sarcasm. Needless to say, forging innocence, emulating spontaneity and faking monetary disinterest are the ultimate acts of artistic manipulation. Over the years, Pettibon, Davis, Shrigley, Marx and Gonzales have succeeded in creating their own parallel, and very personal, visual languages – and I have never ceased to marvel at the fact that, notwithstanding the disarming apparent simplicity of their techniques, the styles of these artists have proved to be, in the end, inimitable, despite endless attempts by less gifted practitioners. They are ‘one-offs’. They may have opened doors and inspired the artists in this book, but I feel they don’t quite belong in it: there is too much calculation – too many twists, second and third degrees – involved in what they do, and that is not quite what we are looking at here.

In the same way, while compiling this book, we have also decided not to pay too much attention to the idea of ‘post-Internet’ art, though, again, there are striking parallels between this and the aesthetic choices of post-Internet artists: a determination to break down compositional rules and grids, to throw away notions of good taste, visual and technical refinement, and so on. But unlike most post-Internet artists, those featured in this book are wholeheartedly engaged in using very simple means to create aesthetically complex works. We have included some of the precursors to this type of work in this book: Philippe Weisbecker, Jean-Philippe Delhomme, Kim Hiorthøy (and we could possibly have included serious art-world players such as Marcel Dzama and Jockum Nordström). Indifferent to art and illustration fads, these visionary artists have been hard at work creating unique bodies of work, sometimes on simple schoolboy cahiers (as is the case with Weisbecker). And it is in order to celebrate their small (not meant as a derogatory word) and idiosyncratic (ditto) masterpieces, as well as those of their heirs, that we have put this book together.

Artless: Art and Illustration by Simple Means by Marc Valli and Amandas Ong in published by Laurence King.


Artless: Federica Del Proposto


Artless: Laura Carlin


Artless: Virginie Bergeret


Artless: Virginie Morgand


Artless: contents page illustrations Zoe Taylor


Artless: cover illustration by Vania Mignone

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