Jean-Charles de Castelbajac

by Matthew Bedard

Looking Back at Visions of Our Future, and a Mystical Encounter in Oh La La Land
Now to the honorary surrealist of our would-be, could-be megalopolis of Paris meets L.A.—Jean-Charles de Castelbajac—whom I speak with about a week after the artist and designer has created our Oh La La Land art cover. An explanation: photo duo ioulex shot pop superstar Britney Spears for what we call the “personality cover,” which sits below JCDC’s finished artwork. At the center of their photoset was an altar of sorts, decorated in canonical figures and pop culture deities, and built by acclaimed set designer, Douglas Little. We printed a photo of this altar, which contained, among other bits and bobs—like King Kong or naughty fairies—the Virgin Mary, of whom you’ll find Spears reflectively revering in her interview. We printed this altar image about nine feet tall and shipped it to Loubersan, in the Southwest of France, where de Castelbajac owns a castle built in the 11th century and where he likes to August. He labored over what to do with the massive image, eventually concluding a direction and shipping it back to L.A. where it was photographed inside a Hollywood studio. The fraternal, and moderately absurd, circle of Oh La La Land had been lovingly rounded.

A journey into the world of JCDC, 66, is foremost, simply, romantic. Romantic in all its glorified and occasionally eerie shades. Romantic, then, de Castelbajac’s enthusiasm for progress, where his declarations, even if occasionally grave, have that uncanny twinkle of the prophetic prankster; of a hurried, abandoned, all-in love affair. This love sees an invigoration by the youth and their point of view within our accelerating communication forms, rather than predictable skepticism. Below, he enthusiastically describes a large illustration commission for global messaging app, Line, which boasts over 200 million monthly users and made a billion dollars last year… and is also really fun, particularly if you attend raves or you gossip, or gossip while raving.

Anyway, JCDC does like himself some speed. And it’s speed, or at least its key ingredient—movement—that has defined his career, the scope of which is hard to fathom. As critic and mutual Parisian fixture, Diane Pernet—also featured in this Oh La La Land issue, but in our Revolutionaries section, of which de Castelbajac created the sections’ opening graphics—states in his book’s forward: “Long before the famous Kermit the Frog plush toy fur coat for Lady Gaga there were his collaborations with Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Elton John, Farrah Fawcett [for Charlie’s Angels (1976)], the New York Dolls, Madonna, Malcolm McLaren, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones, Woody Allen, Dita Von Teese, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Keith Haring, and my favorite, the Pope.”

That’s right, the Pope. Irreverent cultural transcendence evident in a thumb through his upcoming retrospective imprint Fashion, Art & Rock´n´Roll; dizzying with daring and prescience, the influence of which is now seen all over Instagram, amongst the tribes of the cool and now. “I did not do this for self-satisfaction,” he says in a tone that acknowledges the ego often poured into monographic hardbacks—or well-tended social media accounts—“Not, ‘look what I did.’”

With his fashion, it wasn’t just oversized animism or poking fun through fabric, but sensuous, powerful cuts and gender-scrambling that profoundly leant itself, at its height, to the music, the activism, and the appetite of the influential, and the longing to be influenced. With art and his third-party brand contributions, like his work with Italian act, Iceberg, it was as much about conviviality and merrymaking with the culture masters of his era, as it was about a marketplace, for the two clearly needed to groove hand in hand—or what was the point?

Turning away from the aggressive pace and demand of contemporary RTW fashion production over the last decade, de Castelbajac shifted focus to performance pieces, or the development of subsidiary lines that have accelerated in South Korea—where he visits frequently to speak or create public sculptures atop central Seoul monuments to fevered acclaim—and of course in the showing of his myriad artworks, paintings, and drawings, and whatever comes between. This issue of Flaunt continues to demonstrate that tribal conviviality: before his receipt of our would-be cover art in the South of France, de Castelbajac had just completed an artist residency in St. Barts, as organized by Jenny Mannerheim, his Paris gallerist and also an Oh La La Land contributor [see her curation with Each x Other].

And the output is constant, unceasing. A saunter through Paris will see de Castelbajac, breathily kissing its alluring alleyways and centuries-old bridges with chalk-drawn caricatures, animals, and simple sentences of virtue, sorrow, or the divine. So, it’s with divinity, or its intervention, that de Castelbajac contributes to Oh La La Land, and it’s with a sort of grace that he shares images from this creative tome, Fashion, Art & Rock´n´Roll. Accordingly, de Castelbajac will continue his march forward, a chalky angel left here or there… for you or someone else, in his city, or yours.

What are you doing this evening, Jean-Charles?

I have a full night of working. Because I’m creating stickers for a company called Line. I have 60 stickers to design. They are art, or stars, or letters, whatever. Because then my drawings are all over the world. In America, Line is popular. I want to bring this poetry into the youth’s world.

What do you think about how communication has transformed into caricatures and symbols?

I love this. I think people are having a difficult time to share emotions. They are not as influenced by traditional charm, so they relate to symbols. Maybe this is happening in a time of addiction. But still, I trust in the future as much as I trust in the past. It’s good to be involved in all that.

I saw you this spring and we spoke then about the speed of culture, and you remarked to me about the imperative that young people need to take this into consideration—that there isn’t as much time as we might like. It had a sympathetic tone.

Yes, Matthew, but perhaps that was the older side of me. Perhaps that is, I don’t know, a melancholia side. Or maybe, let’s call it romantic. I am just a bit worried about the speed of life today—too fast to live, too young to die. I like speed, but I also like something that doesn’t call attention to itself. I am quite scared because creativity, at some point, has no time to establish, and no time to operate. Now, it’s always about a plan. It’s planned. And creativity is not about planning.

When was the most planned time of your life, and conversely, when were you with the least amount of planning?

The most planned time of my life was in boarding school. Every day was totally dictated by authority. But the freest time was maybe what I’m doing now. When I’m speaking to you I’m drawing an emblem on the wall. I’m doing it with a stone. And I’m beholden to what I wrote. I wrote: “Oh La La Land.”

You’re our message’s prophet! Can you describe the process of making this cover?

It was almost a mystical thing. Mystical because I spent my summer—it’s almost six months I don’t drink alcohol anymore—for the moment, at least, and it has meant some different thinking. So, one moment, on the 15th of August, I woke in the night. And I went to my chapel. And I began to paint on the wall. And I painted the celebration of the Mother of Jesus: Mary. Because the 15th of August, across the world, is the celebration of Mary. And then on the other wall I did a celebration of my ancestors. On the other wall I did the kids of the future. The next day, I decided I would go to Paris, and while I was packing my luggage, a postman comes to the castle, and he brought a huge, huge tube! And I thought, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I did not expect such a big thing. It was huge!

And how did you first view it?

Well, everyone asked me where I was going to open it. And so I decided: the chapel. And when I unroll it, I see the Mother of Jesus, again! I was shocked! It was so strange to me. To finish my work in the chapel and be greeted by this vision of Mary again. So mysterious, so mysterious. So I didn’t do anything for five days. And I went every night, and every day into the chapel. And then, I remembered: a painting of Man Ray, the big painting of the mouth in the sky [“The Lovers”]. And I was thinking that might be, really, what I think about the connection between Los Angeles and Paris: a kiss. It was something united. All that in a very sensual and sexy way. So I paint a huge mouth, and then I wrote “Oh La la Land” on it. Then, I spent two days more deciding about where and how to place the blue, and everything else. And anyway, this was, I believe, the hardest focused creation of my life. It was so mysterious, and concerned with serenity! With serendipity! And with mysticism. And I call it “The Chapel in the Hills,” because it was Dean Martin who wrote “Chapel in the Moon Light.” And then I finished that, and I included my soul, and all my friends, the ones I love, from then and now.

And how do you feel your experience with this relates to your retrospective book. What about the book is mystical?

Well, my book is not about the past. It’s about the future. Generally, when you do a book, you do like a resume of what you have done. And it’s like a manifesto of all the definitive things you have achieved. I think the things I’ve achieved were about knowing exactly what I wanted to do for the future—where I saw a chance to change the world. So, Fashion, Art, and Rock n’ Roll, is exactly like the cover of Flaunt. It is about versatility, about participating in a time of evolution toward the good side of the human: art. Art with no fear. Art with no walls. Art forever. And this is what I love in Flaunt. Because you’ve never had any, any, any regard, any passivity to commerciality, to the easiness. And this is what is great.

In my editor’s letter, I wrote about the inception of Oh La La Land, and how it occurred before the November attacks, and the subsequent attacks, before France changed so dramatically, and how we created this issue with Paris while all of that was happening. How do you think these changes will impact the French youth and their creativity?

I think the creativity will become a résistance. You have to remember, when people are at war, they are not lazy. And the only good thing of this situation is that solidarity is the ultimate refuge. And strength. Paris never dies. Despite what the gods said, in the Trojan War. Fraternity—the fraternity around Los Angeles, and other cities—Paris, out of anywhere, is a rare place. So I’m full of hope.

As a father, you are connected differently to youth. It is not fraternity amongst groups, or fraternity within cities, but paternity. How do you feel your responsibility as an inspirational artist translates to fatherhood?

I don’t know if it’s my art that is inspiring. But it is my hope that my attitude is. I think that today, this is a time of art—the manifesto of being a tribe, and to keep going. In the eyes of my sons, in your eyes, and in the eyes of all the entrepreneurs, I think this is my best method of art. To go on with projects, with dynamism. That’s why there is a very big difference between being a designer, and being an artist. It’s always why I wanted to be both. Designers answers the questions—questions about beauty, comfort, about functionality. Art asks the questions—it’s more about the blur, and the mystery.

I recently saw somewhere someone describing that “music is the sound of feeling.” Music has played such a critical part in your artistry and design, and is obviously a tenet of the book’s title. How do you relate to contemporary music and how do you see it influencing current art?

I’m the most unfaithful man about music, because music is a fragment of all my emotions. I have a very vascular relationship to music. Every time I have a disconnect with the world, I disappear, and I get used to the silence. But when I come back to the world, I realize that it’s very special to reconnect to sound. So I am like a conquistador about music. I always look for new music. Like I look for new emotions, or new experience. Music, for me, is my link to eternity. It’s my way of praying, like when I draw.

Fashion, Art & Rock´n´Roll is availble October 15th via TeNeues

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