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Olivier Kosta-Thefaine - Firestarter

Words:

Edd Norval
February 15, 2021

You’ve seen it in toilets. Those marks on the wall, burned by lighters. A permanent and deviant twin brother of the Sharpie. For many, it’s just something you do in a toilet to let the world know you exist. For Olivier Kosta-Thefaine, it’s been perfected to an art.

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Street art today has many shapes. It’s an all-encompassing term that ranges from old school tagging to the removal of dirt from motorway underpasses. It feels like there isn’t much out there that hasn’t been talked about and developed. When something hitherto unseen comes along, it’s an exciting moment of realisation that - no matter how it might feel at times - the possibilities are always endless.


Not to say Kosta-Thefaine invented the style of street art whereby the art is created using a lighter, as its ghostly shapes permanently mark an object, but that's exactly the point. It's always been right there. What he did do is pioneer it and has been experimenting with it for well over a decade. 


If anyone has tried this, it’s a little harder than it looks. So, when you see the detailed and intricate frescos that the French artist produces on large ceiling spaces, it’s hard not to wonder at the technical marvel. He’s taken it from pub toilet to art gallery, from the hands of bored vandals to that of a contemporary Renaissance figure.

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As a suburban kid, moving to the big city offered up a whole new sense of perspective. Seeing things that are popular in a new place leads an innate part of our imaginations to associate said things with said places pretty quickly. Even if you only spend a few days somewhere, you’ll remember certain things about it for the rest of your life.


Kosta-Thefaine seems to have picked up remnants of urban Paris and allowed them to materialise as an extension of the language that had already been circulating his mind. An artist sees the world in a particular way, usually paying attention to things that others can easily overlook. It is such minutiae that draws this particular artist’s attention, provoking a respect for the hidden in plain sight.


Burning graffiti with lighters was popular where he came from and something he began to experiment with in 2005, evolving over the next several years, before ramping it up recently, almost as if its siren song has been impossible to ignore. What initially interested the Frenchman was the power that this medium provided for contradiction and paradox. Now, he has refined it to within a wooden frame.

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Many housing schemes in France, like most of Europe, are given poetic names, almost as if the developers hope that this could possibly mitigate from the day-to-day harshness of existence in such places. In France, whose poetic lexicon has always been full of flowers, Kosta-Thefaine noticed that these housing schemes carried the same nomenclature. So, for an exhibition, he burned these flowery names onto a ceiling and had an epiphany.


His audience was able to both admire, but also understand it. The work had a strong concept, but it wasn’t impenetrable or convoluted. These lighter-words have always existed, but we too overlook them. By choosing to give them prominence as a sort of satirical advert for the vast concrete housing blocks, his message was clear. The invisible is being made visible. The beauty contradicted with the brutality of the style, yet the two seemed like partners-in-crime that were born to be.


Pulling in disparate themes from various walks-of-life, however inaccessible they may be on their own, become highly relatable when viewed as a cohesive entity. Branded by the artist himself as ‘cheap vandalism’, the technique - more recently beginning to make appearances in frames - does not lose any of its magic when viewed that way. If anything, the fact that it is so ‘cheap’, so in our face - yet a style of art that nobody looks at - only reinforces the vision of Kosta-Theifaine and the hard-wired mesmeric essence that fire still evokes within each of us. It isn't a new technique per se, but it's new like this. 


It's difficult to think of these works created by lighters without that same sense of excitement we get when something entirely new is revealed. Let's hope this is something the artist continues to develop.

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