JOSÉ FRANCO AND STREET ART
José Miguel Franco Codinach (Pepe Franco) was born in Havana in 1958 and he lived there his entire childhood and youth. He went to the San Alejandro National School of Fine Arts where he started his studies of art and graduated in 1978. That same year he began his studies in the High Institute of Arts (ISA) until he finished them in 1983. In 1982, together with Gustavo Acosta, Moisés Finalé and Carlos García, he created the group 4 x 4, to which he was united until 1987, the year in which they decided to continue their work in an independent way. The genesis of this group has to do with the interest they shared to return to painting as a means of expression before the peak of the installations in the art of those years.
José Franco took part in the three first editions of the Havana Biennial (1984, 1986 and 1989) and, in 1990, made his first solo exhibition at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in Havana, which he called Riiing! Grrr! and marked a milestone in his career. Drawings, paintings and installations, including chairs and other objects, were exhibited there. And some of the paintings had that two-dimensional and three-dimensional mixture which has been a recurrent element in his career. In one of those paintings he added a telephone as an outstanding element of the composition, in a dialogue between modernity and what is eternal in nature. This successful exhibition allowed him to be the first Cuban artist who won the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1991 in Creative Arts.
The scholarship made him live some months in New York and enter into direct contact with the popular urban culture of those years. Those were the times in which NY was the cultural capital of the world and its trends influenced the entire world. Professional artists, as well as enthusiast youngsters, painted all and each of the walls in the city; and the subway, today clean and tidy, was covered with graffiti in all its coaches. This was the end of the time in which graffiti painters not only painted the wagons outside, but also inside. It was then that Pepe Franco could see for the first time the remaining murals and works by Keith Haring, an artist he had always admired. Haring had died at the beginning of the 1990s and his works could still be seen in New York City. His graffiti, as well as his objects, had always interested Franco and, seeing them in the place for which they had been conceived, and in which they were made, was a very interesting and enriching experience. Haring had been a referent of street culture in New York in the 1980s and his graffiti and comic strips painted in the metro panels influenced many artists of following generations. Haring had also made in 1986 a large 300 meter mural on the Berlin wall, in what it was then known as the Checkpoint Charlie. Franco had visited Berlin in 1989 and, although at that time the mural had been covered by graffiti and works by other artists, and there was nothing in it in view, in the Berlin Wall there were many works which impacted him from the artistic as well as the political point of view.
In his years as a student of ISA, José Franco had studied mural painting and street art, since this one was one of the subjects in his study curriculum. It was there that he entered for the first time into contact with the techniques and the tradition of mural painting in the world. The professor of this subject was muralist Orlando Suárez (who was also very well known because, in 1962, he had created the Experimental Graphic Workshop of Havana). Orlando Suárez had studied Mexican mural painting in Mexico and knew all the traditional techniques he began to transmit to his students. But Pepe always remembers that street art and the murals already interested him since the times in San Alejandro School and he carried out his first experience before studying the history and evolution of these artistic movements, when he joined a group of students in the San Alejandro School and painted the walls of his house, in D St., Vedado, which would be the first of the many murals he has made throughout his career.
When finishing his studies in ISA, Pepe Franco became part of the staff of professors in the institution. But he remembers that at that time the mural professorship had disappeared. And then, within the subject of Art, in which he was a professor as well as Eduardo Ponjuán, there was a part in which they studied the form of doing joint works with the students in public places and, therefore, mural painting had rather remained as a workshop practice. The main idea was carrying out a socially “useful” work from the recovery of public places. So they faced the challenge of finding walls on the city and create in them works in keeping with the environment. It is from this professorship, and as part of the study program, that he then led the realization of the murals the students were creating. From that time is the mural of the killer whales and the dolphins that was located on the corner of 1st Avenue and 42 St., on a wall of the Cuban National Aquarium that today does not exist. Many have also remembered the mural in 1st Avenue and 8 St. in Miramar, in which there was a bicycle leaning against what everyone in Cuba knows as a “peerless fence” and the famous wall in La Rampa that was joined by shoelaces.
Pepe Franco is a tireless worker and is already preparing his projects for the close future which will include a book in which he summarizes his entire artistic path.
His paintings, installations, drawings, graphic work, and also the murals, will be there.
José Franco has never stopped painting and, in recent years, has continued making murals in public spaces. In 2014 he was invited to take part in the Second International Biennial of Mural Painting and Public Art in Cali, Colombia. This Biennial, organized by MULI (Museo Libre de Arte Público de Cali) is an initiative pretending to give back the public space to the city. The subject of this Biennial had to do with national reconciliation, which in the case of Colombia is always a topic of present time, but also with the reconciliation of the persons with their community and with the environment in which they live. In that event Franco participated with two murals, one made solo and named Visión natural (Natural Sight), in the Cali zoo; and another entitled La constelación de la reconciliación (The Constellation of Reconciliation), in collaboration with Gabriel, Brazilian artist of the mosaic, in which they worked in a grade crossing in the same city. This mural was made with a mixed technique, since Gabriel completed part of the mosaics and Pepe drew on the wall. In these murals, Franco recreated his recurrent thematic, the ecology and protection of the environment but, in this case, inspired on the birds and textures of autochthonous animals of the Colombian fauna.
Pepe Franco tells us that he has been always interested in nature. As a child he lived near the coast and spent his days in the “Playita de 16”. He spent hours diving in the sea, looking at the colors of the fish, the rocks, the corals. Today he is sure that this contact with nature influenced him for his entire life and that, united to the relationship of man with nature, that love-hatred relation that is also a construction-destruction relation, are the elements that nowadays have defined his work. What has been actually modified is the use of color although the topics of reflection had continued being the same. With the exception of his graduation thesis in ISA, in which the paintings all had colors, in the beginning they were mostly black and white, or incorporated one color. However, after living in France, Franco began, with much strength, to incorporate color in his works, which can be noticed in the painting, drawing and graphic work, as well as in his last murals. In the case of painting, he abandoned the use of the airbrush and has begun to use the paintbrush again. It is a change of perspective too: before, the final result was the most important thing; now he enjoys more with manual work and the entire process of creation.
Also in 2014, and as part of the project Viví Arte (I Lived Art), he made a large mural in the Barrio Florida Oeste in the Municipality of Vicente López in Buenos Aires Province. This immense mural (composed by four walls, 50 meters long each) which he entitled
La jungla en el asfalto (The Jungle in the Asphalt) and was made with the technique of synthetic enamel, in a low bridge of the locality, summarizes his concept and the base of his artistic creation since, with the use of natural elements, he was able to transform a purely industrial and hostile place for passers-by and inhabitants into a friendly and pleasant abode for all those inhabiting its environment or using it during their journey on that area of the city. The project Viví Arte was created in that Municipality in Argentina with the purpose of making cultural and touristic activities to encourage the integration of the neighbors and improve their life standards by beautifying their environment of life and work.
The mural not only demonstrated Pepe Franco’s capacity as an artist, but also his technical control, the ability and power of working in very large dimensions. It is part of his commitment with society and the place in which he lives. Already in 2010 he had been invited by Municipalidad de Azul, a city in the center of the Buenos Aires Province in Argentina, to take part in a social project. In this case, Franco chose as an inspiration the spiral mural of the Salón de Mayo in Havana (1967) and, although he did not personally made any of the paintings, he was in charge of the coordination of the project, in which inhabitants of that small city took part.
In 2015 he was invited by the Bird Road Art District (BRAD), in the Miami Dade County, to make a mural on one of the walls of this area, with the subject of man and nature. The mural that was made there was entitled El profeta (The Prophet) and takes up one of the walls of that circuit of art and design born in Miami in 2000.
As part of his constant search and investigation of the possibilities of the various techniques and surfaces to do his work, Pepe has not only made murals in public spaces. Already in the 1980s he had been part of the Telarte project for which he had presented four designs of fabrics. This project intended to give life to the textile industry in Cuba and, because of that, it joined the creativity of the Cuban visual artists and the institutional interest. Fabrics used in the most diverse ways by the Cuban population were made.
And the challenge that he feels particularly close, because of having been able to link his passion for cars and his passion for art, was to use some of them as support. That is how in 2007, while living in Paris, he painted his first car: a red Ferrari that, with its wings and black stains seeming to challenge the urban jungle. In 2011 he was invited by Peugeot-Citroën automotive manufacturer to intervene a car as part of the celebrations for the manufacturing of the first Citroën in the Argentinean plant. But, in this occasion, instead of concentrating in the outside, he removed the doors to be able to intervene the chairs which are enormous cows grazing in a small space that is discerned in the front defense. In 2012, as a request of its owner, he painted an old Mercedes Benz car, kept in an area in Uruguay where the beach and the countryside meet. Franco was inspired by this fact and, in the friezes, on one side there are the elements belonging to the sea and, on the other, elements belonging to the countryside.
Pepe Franco is a tireless worker and is already preparing his projects for the close future which will include a book in which he summarizes his entire artistic path. His paintings, installations, drawings, graphic work, and also the murals, will be there. And an exhibition in the city where he was born and in which he has not exhibited solo again since 2000, is a project that will soon come true. That will be the occasion to again enter into contact with his world, his reflections and his new paintings full of colors and (why not?) with a large mural in one of the walls in the city.
Argentinian cows roam in the first Citroën built in the country, 2011
Acrylic on auto and other elements
Buenos Aires Design Center, Argentina
Chairs with soft sculptural elements and acrylic Variable dimensions
Courtesy the artist