T he idea that visual culture can be a cohesive entity is an illusion. Only on the margins of such a profoundly chaotic landscape can you find a clarifying vantage — and with that, it’s hardly surprising that the punk ethos feels as relevant as ever.
That’s not exactly revelatory to Upstate New York artist Banks Violette, for whom punk is a permanent state of mind — and a constant influence on his practice. That mentality, carried through existential and creative matters alike, is one he happens to share with Paris fashion’s most vehement counter-culturist, Hedi Slimane, who has helmed Celine since 2018. The two creatives both trace their practice back to the mid-aughts, when the punk zeitgeist had taken on elements of pop and emo music (the era is now nostalgically dubbed “indie sleaze” as a new iteration emerges in the form of eboys and egirls on TikTok).
Recently, Slimane invited Violette to contribute artwork for Celine Homme’s winter 2022 collection, “Boy Doll.” Violette obliged, delivering to the designer high-contrast, grayscale drawings of a horse and a US flag — two motifs long found in Violette’s practice. On their own, the artist explains, both images play into romantic notions of Americana. But in his stark, achromatic renderings, their forms take on a spectral quality, alluding to less rosy, more enigmatic dimensions of this inherent symbolism.
Slimane incorporated Violette’s illustrations into three looks: Two different jackets are emblazoned with a horse and a flag, and a white tank top bears a flag printed in black pigment. Imagery sourced from seven other artists — among them Ed Broker, Steve Reinke and Jade Montserrat — also appears throughout the collection.
“Boy Doll” is only the latest a series of sweeping initiatives Slimane has put in motion since taking over Celine, galvanizing the nearly 80-year-old fashion house with something of a broader aesthetic vocabulary by way of contemporary visual art. Other initiatives range from the Celine Art Project, which sees artists commissioned to make work for Celine’s stores, to the iconic brand’s presenting partnership with Sotheby’s — including its October auctions in London and the May New York Sales: Modern Evening, NOW Evening and Contemporary Evening.
Leading up to the spring auction season, we spoke with Violette about working with Slimane, what makes or breaks a graphic and all things punk.
How did you and Hedi first meet in 2005 and how have you stayed in touch over the years?
Hedi is always engaged with musicians and artists and the like. He does a lot of photography, so he reaches out to people he’s interested in and takes their picture. I met him through that. There are a number of different overlaps with what he’s preoccupied with aesthetically and what I’m interested in, and we hit it off. I’ve always had high regard for him — and he still seems to like my work.
Could you walk me through your collaboration with Celine Homme for its recent “Boy Doll” collection?
It is collaborative in that I produced work for the collection, but it was ultimately Hedi making the decisions. It’s purely his authorial intent throughout.
I’ve got a reputation for work that’s grim and spooky and sort of Gothic. But also, I make a lot of very romantic images — things like horses and flags and sunsets and roses. I had an idea of Hedi’s sensibility, because I know his work and I’ve worked with him in the past. I gave him a variety of images, but his selections resonated with what I guess you would call “Americana.” Then, seeing what kind of images he chose and which direction he was leaning in, I made a few additional drawings of horses.
If an original work was intended to function as a drawing, then it’s tricky to translate it to something else — say, embroidery. But if it’s made deliberately graphic, then it works however it’s translated. So with each new image, the intent was that it would work at any resolution — if you shrunk it or blew it up — or if you did it in embroidery, bedazzled it, whatever.
“If you want to explain post-modernism to somebody, tell them to look at punk rock.”
How do you define something as being “graphic,” as opposed to something that appears more painterly or more expressively drawn?
A graphic image makes a visual impact that lends to your ability to locate it almost instantaneously. A lot of the images that I gravitate toward in the first place are already iconic — it’s a skull or it’s a horse. The images I made for “Boy Doll” were a little bit more graphic so that they would translate to the back of a jacket. Which it seems to have! [laughter]
What connection do you feel — in terms of your practice or even on a personal level — to this chapter in Celine’s history, whether with “Boy Doll” specifically or more generally with Hedi’s tenure?
There’s an overlap with what I do and what I think Hedi does — he’s a historian of subcultures. Like Dick Hebdige, Hedi is the kind of person who goes out and sees what people are wearing on the street and moves it around. That’s the exact same way I relate to things. I get really motivated, for instance, by an amazing album cover from 1982.
When you say “subcultures,” it feels like you are both specifically aligned with punk.
If you want to explain post-modernism to somebody, tell them to look at punk rock. It’s this sort of Frankenstein creation that pulled from all these different eras and mixed and matched all kinds of different things. It opened the doors for this DIY ethos of assembling the world according to how you view it, of using the leftovers. That’s a very romantic way to describe it, but it’s still one that I get a lot from. I think punk is hugely influential, and I presume the same holds true for Hedi, just looking at his work.
Punk subculture, going back to the 1970s, maintained that ideology of sampling from mainstream culture in order to subvert it. It has also fluctuated subtly — and sometimes not so subtly — in style and underlying attitudes, depending on the culture it’s reacting against from decade to decade.
It has always guided my choices — ever since I was able to make decisions about what I like and manifest things in the world. I was a dumb punk-rock kid, and now that I’m a middle-aged man with a bunch of tattoos, I still listen to that music. I’m not just drawn to the music, but also the visuals surrounding it. I keep stacks of books that came out of old ’zine culture, usually made by some kid with a glue stick, an X-Acto blade and a fistful of quarters at a Kinko’s late at night. Cutting and sawing and taking elements of the outside world — not necessarily inventing something, but just reassembling it to make it all work your way — there’s something astoundingly attractive about that to me.
You mentioned how your work straddles themes that are both dark and romantic. Could you speak to that aesthetic — dark versus romantic versus the combination?
Punk is a perfect distillation of that. It’s clearly coded as this rebellious “fuck you” thing, when in fact it’s a bunch of people who are super alienated trying to create a community for themselves. That’s fundamentally an affirmative, lovely, generous thing. There’s a great tension at the center of that definition, and I’m endlessly attracted to those kinds of irreconcilable conflicts that are inherent to certain things where you cannot have one without the other. You can try to edit it into a palatable shape, but it doesn’t work.
Sotheby’s May New York Sales, presented in partnership with CELINE, will be on view in New York City 6–19 May.