“I love John Wayne Gacy's paintings,” says Amandine Urruty, admitting to her twisted fascination with serial killers. “I'm listening to videos about serial killers and crimes of passion all day and night long.” This morbid interest might help explain her hauntingly gorgeous graphite-drawn universe. With a cast of characters ranging from children to monsters, Urruty creates Victorian-style portraits seemingly imagined by Stephen King after dropping acid in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The resulting pieces are both beautiful and disturbing, making one think the late Killer Clown would have been an Urruty fan as well. Caro Buermann, the Special Projects Curator at the Corey Helford Gallery, included Urruty in a new three-women show that also includes American pop surrealist Mab Graves and Japanese artist Yoko d’Holbachie. In connection with the exhibit, PRØHBTD spoke with Urruty to learn more about her ghostly imagery.
Can you tell me about the pieces you contributed to the exhibit? Do they share an overall theme?
I have 10 new pieces for the show at Corey Helford, and they are part of the same series with the common theme ghostly encounters. By looking at them, I have the feeling that I tried to produce a bit more feminine and sweet pieces. My favorite one is the biggest, the Fruit Triptych, which is a big and a bit creepy family gathering.
Most of your characters seem forged from your own mind, but occasionally I see recognizable characters like the Cowardly Lion in Fruit Triptych and the Cookie Monster in Disco Ball. How does a preexisting character get an invite into your visual world?
My visual universe is a reflection of my mental world, where my own obsessions—about sausages, for example—meet what we can call a shared culture: iconic characters, childhood memories, vintage toys, medieval bestiaries and Renaissance landscapes. Memory is a playground, and I love to build my pictures like a visual bric à brac, mixing Victorian post-mortem photography, Garbage Pail Kids, mythological creatures, dogs in Katy Perry costumes, Sesame Street and House of 1000 Corpses.
Your artwork typically involves a group rather than a lone character. Was there a particular motivation for drawing groups, and is there typically a lead character driving the narrative?
Even if sometimes the focus is on one big character, that's true, I always love to produce overcrowded pictures. I can't help adding more and more elements when I build them. To me, a finished picture is often a dense picture. I love the idea of wandering through a drawing and always finding new detail. It's my kind of tribute to Hieronymus Bosch's paintings!
Images (left to right): Bat, Fruit Triptych, Tea Party and Family Portrait.
You’ve said that many of the characters have personal symbolic meanings to you. Do you find that you are more likely to create a symbolic character in reference to a happy experience or a sad one?
It depends. Some of them are related to sad experiences, and others to jokes or funny memories. The fact is that they all coexist, just like in real life. I love to draw contradictory elements. Funny, scary, cute, salacious. My favorite art is bittersweet, and that's the feeling I try to reproduce in my own pictures. A simple detail can make a creepy situation comical, and vice versa. To me, this swaying of sense is the point of art, what makes it “word resistant,” inexpressible.
Does art help you release negative energy, or do the rigors of creating art on a deadline add to your stress?
A bit of both! Drawing can be a relaxing activity. I even think it can be assimilated into a kind of meditation. You need to be totally immersed and involved, all the more because you can pay for your mistakes if you're not concentrating enough. But I must admit that it's always a race against time! In this way, it's a stressful activity, extremely time-consuming. To respect the deadlines, I need to work day and night, and I never take advantage of the weekend or holidays. My last holidays were a year ago. They lasted four days. It's funny because people usually think that artists are slackers. These people can never realize how long it takes to produce a picture.
For the type of art you wish to create, what are the benefits of using a pencil rather than a brush?
I've always been very awkward at using brushes. Maybe that's why, when I began my art studies, I used to produce kind of expressionist paintings! At that time, I wanted to be Francis Bacon. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, and I wisely got back to my first and beloved medium: pencil. But this choice may also be partially motivated by a special and personal problem. Pencils have the real advantage to be a dry technique, and I have a bad habit—I’ve always worked on my bed. With pencils, I can limit the damages.
You are one of the few artists who primarily creates in black and white. What appeals to you about this aesthetic?
I always loved graphite drawing, but it took me a long time to admit that it was my chosen field. Even if I used to take a lot of pleasure using pencils during my academic drawing lessons, I wanted to try other techniques, so I started to do bad painting and then photography. I used to print huge posters with sausages and slogans, and then I pasted them on walls... vintage student street art. I went back to drawing a bit later. My first show was filled entirely with black and white drawings, and I used to claim that color was definitely too vulgar for me. I'm kidding, but there was a bit of truth behind that. I wanted black and white to be my profession of faith.
Loud colors and rainbows arrived a bit later, as part of a “magical thinking” plan, a childish way to cope with a new and so sad period I had to face. This immersion in candy pink and neon yellow lasted two years, and led me to produce dozens of violently colored pieces. When my dad finally died, I realized that this rainbow colors magical plan was tragically useless. I definitely came back to black and white three years ago, and today I don't want to change direction. Graphite is an infinite medium, and I love the idea of trying to master it the best I can.
I would love to hear more about the band you were in before doing art. What type of music was it?
It was a degenerated French bossa nova band. Degenerated in the sense that we also used to play progressive rock and eight-bit melodies. The only key thread was that everything was sung out of tune. Unintentionally. Even though it finished in a bloodbath—I guess that's the destiny of many couple's projects—it was an exciting experience, leading me to sing in front of lots of people. To be honest, I had nothing to do on a stage, but I guess it gave me a little bit more self-confidence and helped me to start my career as a visual artist later.
Did the band provide opportunities to express yourself as a visual artist through posters, album covers, flyers and pieces like that?
I was already an art student when we started the band, but it led me to take distance from the university's strictness and begin to work on a personal graphic world. It all began with rag doll-like characters with no mouth, no nose, no hand, almost nothing in sum, except big eyes, and copulating shapeless animals. Even if I must admit that I find these old pictures a bit... too minimal... I had a great time creating them. They were my first real personal productions. Looking back to this experience, I think I still like my first portraits of dogs, but if I have to keep only one memory, it would be my participation in the French American Idol. Luckily for the audience, I wasn't singing! I just did body-painting on one of the guest singers, and it was terribly fun.
You admittedly like to read about serial killers when creating art. Which serial killer do you find the most interesting in a twisted sort of way?
I'm listening to videos about serial killers and crimes of passion all day and night long, but the only one who gave me nightmares was Jeffrey Dahmer, maybe because of his scary polaroids. Then, I know it's awfully weird, but I love John Wayne Gacy's paintings. I don't know why I've always been fascinated by these gruesome stories. They act like lullabies on me. But to be honest, I'm never really scared by killers’ stories, maybe because I'm watching horror movies since the age of nine. This passion is a heritage as my father was a huge fan of these kinds of movies. It gave me the opportunity to experience my first cinematographic thrills at a very young age while watching Suspiria, The Funhouse and Re-Animator. Now I guess I'm keeping the torch burning!
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.