Rising Above France
Alexis Peskine’s art hits the nail on the head



At last, Alexis Peskine is back in Paris. This time he’s storming the Bastille, exhibiting at the BE-ESPACE Gallery. It’s a proud moment for the gallery’s US-born founder and director, Brian Elliott Rowe, who is thrilled to present a dozen works by this multi-facetted, world-renowned artist. Peskine’s « acu-painting » forcefully proclaims the diversity of his own origins, its nails hammering home his personal philosophy. Each piece is a manifesto, an appeal for an alternative society where black and white would be two sides of a single humanity providing fertile ground for rich and varied contrasts. 

« Rising above France » ? In fact, Alexis Peskine could hardly be more in tune with the reality of France, in all its diversity and singularity. His father was Franco-Russian, his mother Afro-Brazilian. His grandfather was a Jew who survived the German death camps. This baggage could be hard to carry, but instead it provides him with wings, both as an artist and as a man. His work naturally expresses the trauma that arises from the way society regards people who are different, whoever they may be. And although he chooses to address problems of identity, he doesn’t only focus on his own; he extends the field of action and reaction to include sexual, ethnic, nationalistic and religious sectarianism. He baulks, resists and rebels, but his main aim is to drive home nails in the coffin of ignorance and obscurantism in all its guises. His cosmopolitanism is directly linked to the concept of négritude posited by Aimé Césaire and in Edgar Morin’s notion of « poly-identity ». His colour palette uses only black for human skin, as only black can provide relief from the oppression of dominant hues. It also serves as a perfect foil for patches of vibrant colour, most often red or yellow, like vivid flags flapping in the wind.

His technique is unique, taking its inspiration from screen printing, Pop Art from Warhol to Chuck Close and Lichtenschtein, and Congoloses Nkisi sculpture; it also references voodoo and crucifixion. The nail takes the place of the brushstroke. A very particular artistic material, it is also a pointed metaphor: raw and uncompromising. In his portrait gallery, Peskine does not want to see just a single face: he uses nine sizes of nail that he drives in at different depths to create a sense of relief and introduce a third dimension. His works are based on graphics that use photography and Photoshop to achieve stencil-like effects. He hammers in nails, mounts them on wooden backings, and paints or varnishes them; sometimes he gilds them with gold leaf. The result is a combination of simple materials and technology, of ancestral themes and modernity, of art and craft.

Akin to neo-pop, he nourishes his painterly idiom with heros from popular imagery. Mister Clean, Banania, Asterix and Tintin are called upon to drive home his social message; his struggle against bigotry invokes familiar personalities, exaggerating the features of a humanity that has lost its way. His clear-sighted approach also has a touch of humour and a dash of aesthetic elegance. His aim is to share with everyone, to spark dialogue and conversation, and ultimately to move people. He uses his own particular take on contemporary art, combining policical or advertising slogans, visual puns and references to universal themes.

Focusing strongly on both form and content, Peskine’s work combines a refined aesthetic sensibility with a powerful sense of message. His rows of metal spikes create a skin that is never completely smooth, reminding us that physical and psychological pain can be transcended. They carry their own strengths within themselves: resistance, constructiveness, resilience. These elegant « Men in Black » - wearing three piece suits or the garb of triumphant athletes – seem to ask themselves if they will be forever condemned to have one foot inside and one foot outside society. Acclaimed when they succeed, they are criticized in their daily lives and even spat upon when they fail. Peskine nails us to the pillory of these home truths that we prefer not to hear.

He is also a photographer, showing the same exacting approach when he chooses his models: they radiate a magnetic beauty and a powerful sense of presence. They are there to serve his message. The black « Mariam », entitled « The French Evolution », not only speaks for itself, it also speaks for Alexis Peskine, forming a kind of « national anthem » in response to the famous « identity debate » that caused so much controversy in France. This photo featured in the New York Times in July 2007, in a special edition of Le Monde in January 2010, and on the front page of Libération in February 2012. 

Alexis Peskine was born in Paris in 1979. At age 15 he enrolled at the School of Graphic Arts on the Rue Orfila in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, and at 17 he moved to the USA to play basketball, to continue his studies, and to pursue his artistic training. In 2003, he gained a Bachelor of Fine Art degree at Howard University, Washington DC ; in 2004 he graduated with a Masters degree in Digital Art. In 2005 he enrolled at the School of Fine Arts, Maryland, thanks to a Fullbright Scholarship (he was the first foreign student to be awarded this honour), and obtained his Master of Fine Art diploma there. He won a number of awards while still a student, including the Verizon HBCU and the Henessy Next Black Master competition. He attracted the attention of two New York institutions: the Whitney Museum and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. He returned to France in 2005, and since then has exhibited his work all over the world: New York, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Paris, Luxembourg, Dakar, Johannesburg, Cape Town, etc. Among his influences he cites Kara Walker for her hard-hitting style, Murakami for his childlike expressionism, Basquiat for his political engagement, and Banksy for his cynical humour. In December 2010, his work attracted much favourable attention at the third Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres in Senegal. Today Peskine is an internationally recognized artist who shares his life between Paris, Salvador, Dakar and New York.

On right : Nail painting by Alexis Peskine "Liberty Leading, Equality Leaving" - Portrait of Lilian Thuram for Special Issue of LE MONDE January 2010 -Cover and inside illustration for article