Down and dirty with the Paris-based artist
However you look at it, Theo Gennitsakis’s work is impossible to ignore.
Revelling in a highly-stylised meeting of kitsch, sensual, risque, the garishness of the 80s, the vibrancy of disco and the downright odd, the Paris-based, Greek-born artist has applied his distinctive style across a wide range of disciplines. A multi-faceted, stylish and eccentric individual, with his increasing prominence achieved entirely off his own back, there is much to be admired.
With output filtered through ideas grounded in pop culture, and often a fascination with the female body, Gennitsakis’s work is always easy on the eye. See his branding work with huge companies – daubing both a bottle of Desperados and a pair of Puma trainers in all manner of his signature, jubilantly coloured adornations – or phenomenally creative typography, vivid, shapely and often given a certain unattainable glamour by both its indecipherability and its varied linguistic content. But it’s perhaps in his airbrushed images of female figures where Gennitsakis appears to apply his techniques most zealously. Taking cues from pin-up culture and pornography, his ELLES series focuses on ladies in various states of undress, featuring assorted perspectives (and levels of anatomical detail) and, on occasion, a cameo from Theo himself. In more surreal creations, these familar, human curves interact with angular, geometric shapes, extraterrestional landscapes are formed from the female body, and a wolf ’s fierce mouth is clad in lipstick.
While there is an innate sense of fun to everything he does, that is by no means to say this is someone who does not take their work seriously. To truly make a success of oneself without deviating from your chosen path, this can never be the case. While his work may be labelled kitsch, camp or retro in its aesthetic (adjectives he is more than happy to embrace), the application of this style is of utmost importance. And indeed, Gennitsakis is continually in search of further mediums in which to express himself. Moving increasingly away from the illustration, graphic and typography work which initially caught our eye, he now seeks to continue his development as a photographer, as well as garnering his passion as the creative director behind his new, rapidly expanding agency Pressure. Despite his struggles with the English language, it was evident that behind all those puckered lips, feminine curves and sultry eyes there is a man of determination and ambition.
You’re originally from Greece, when and why did you move to Paris? Is Paris a big influence on your work?
I come originally from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. I moved to Paris when I was 15 years old because I wanted to work as an ‘artist’. In my city at the time it was impossible for me to find something good, and so I moved. Paris influences my work, but so do many other cities: Thessaloniki, New York, Lisboa, London, Kabul. Every city has its influence, I think. Paris influences me for the fashion. Paris is very classy.
Equally, do you still make an attempt to maintain your Greek identity?
Sure, I don’t have a choice. I’m Greek and proud. We have a big history which is very interesting for an artist. Actually, it’s very interesting to be Greek. I go to Greece every two to three months, I have so many friends there and all my family is in Greece.
How would you best define both what you are, e.g. illustrator, graphic designer etc? And how would you describe your style?
I’m an artist, because I work with many different materials. I do illustration, photography, painting, art direction and more. My style is a bit kitsch but I know it, a bit sexual, a bit fun, and now my style is beginning to become a bit political with underlying, angry messages. I’m doing a lot more photography now too.
Who or what do you base your images upon? Talk us through the process of producing a typical piece.
My images are from reality. Every image I do comes from taking pictures. If you speak about the sexual ELLES series, they came from differents places with differents girls I meet. Every image is about a first meeting, an interesting conversation and an agreement of the girl to be involved in a shoot for the series. I take some pictures, together we choose the picture and after that I paint it with an airbrush to give it that kitsch style.
Your work is extremely sexualised, is sex important to you? Do you take inspiration from pornography?
Yes, it’s very sexualised and sex is very important for me. I take a lot inspiration from pornography, more from old pornography because I find it to be based more on the body. In general, I like everything feminine. I have a big collection of old magazines such as Lui, Zoom and Playboy. I prefer the pictures when the girl are not completly naked … to me, that is more sexy.
When dealing with sex and nudity, what’s the key to remaining tasteful without becoming crude?
The secret is to never have the legs open. You can make what you want, but if the legs are open, you’re crude!
Do you think it’s important to deal with sex in a light-hearted way? Do you try to maintain a sense of humour throughout your work?
Hmm, it depends with who. I try to present sex in a light-hearted way most of the time. I try to maintain a sense of humour to give the message of freedom and openness, and not to be too crude for some people. A lot of people are very old-fashioned in their thinking, so I try to put humour in my work to be not quite so serious. But for me, it’s very serious.
What is the thinking behind focusing so strongly on the female form rather than the male?
Because I like the female body. With a male it can be less complicated, but I feel like with a woman she has more control and makes the decisions. The male body is not of interest, to me.
What is your background in art, your education and training?
I have no education, no schooling. I learned everything when I came to Paris and I began to meet people. Paris is a good city to educate you. You have everything in the right place at the right time.
Do you think being technically strong is vitally important?
It depends. Some artists don’t need a strong technique for what they do, and some others need it. I don’t know how to draw, I was never taught, so for me it has been very important to learn many different techniques in order to make what I want. Now, for example, I am working with photography, and I work a lot with my girlfriend, who is a very talented stylist and knows a huge amount about fashion. But with photography, I’m not at a good enough standard yet technically, and so I can’t make exactly what I want. That’s why I learn every day. I go out all the time and shoot with different cameras.
Your work sometimes varies between geometric shapes, such as your regular use of pyramids, and organic, human lines. How do you treat these two ideas differently?
I don’t know, I do that very naturally because I have always been a fan of the meeting of the real and the unreal, making something surreal.
What does ‘kitsch’ mean to you? What is it about that style which fascinates you?
Kitsch to me is when you do something cool or beautiful, but you didn’t do it on purpose. That’s why all these things became kitsch, because people tried to make something cool but they didn’t quite know how to do it. Sometimes when you travel, you see a postcard or a shop front and for you it’s art, but they don’t know it! That, to me, is very cool, and that is kitsch. And also, I think I grew up in a kitsch city, so it’s all about melancholia and nostalgia. So I always try to make something a bit kitsch, but to also give the message that ‘I could make this nice, but this way is more fun’. For example, I never finish my stuff. I don’t like to finish an illustration or to retouch a photograph … for me it’s like, if something’s finished then it’s over, it’s dead.
Would you agree that Twins, the illustration printed on a china plate, is the height of kitsch?
Yes, that is very kitch. And even more kitsch and nice if you put it on the wall of your bathroom. If you want, I can come and recreate that illustration in your bathtub … with all the water it could be cool and funny.
You seem to take inspiration from popular culture, particularly that kind of slick, glamourous 80s-related style. Why do you think that style is currently coming back into fashion once again?
I think it’s just that those were 10 years of being cool, fun, free and stylish. But in fashion you always turn … 80s, 90s, 20s, 50s, who knows.
You’ve worked with some big and varied brands, including Nike, Chanel and Desperado. What do you look for when you’re offered a commission?
I look to be free, or for someone to call me and ask me to make something with ‘my style’. If not, then I won’t do it because I know that I would become very frustrated.
Can you tell us a bit about the series of type designs you worked on? Were any created from scratch?
They’re very old, and I don’t work with types anymore for commercial things. I also haven’t worked much in illustration for two years now, just sometimes for my series ELLES. But now it’s more photography, and I do a lot of creative and art direction for fashion brands.
Tell us about Pressure, the creative agency you founded. What is its function, and what is your role within it?
Pressure is an idea agency. We are 10 people from different backgrounds and approaches. Most of them come from fashion, others come from art, and some from advertising agencies. We have art directors, a project manager, a strategic director, a marketing developer, a technology developing guy, a house stylist. We work for a lot of brands, we do identity, advertising campaigns, movies, websites, brand content. We work with big brands and sometimes with small brands because we like to help young creators. Pressure is not a studio or a space with graphic designers. We are an agency with a strong organisation. My function is creative director. I manage the whole team for the creative part. Sometimes I use myself as a photographer, a creative or an art director, but most of the time I manage the team. I founded the agency with my associate. She came from a very big entertainement company and she knows how to manage the production, the agency, and me! You can see all the projects on the website but more on the Pressure fanpage on Facebook. It’s a new agency – we started in January of this year – but we work a lot and we have already some very cool projects.
How would you like to see your style, and your career develop from this point?
At the moment I would like to focus my energy on the agency. I want to develop it and continue to work on very cool and big projects. I travel a lot with the agency now and soon, when I become stronger with photography, I will use the professional travel to take pictures. But always in the same vein as my older works: fun, a bit kitsch and bizarre. If these things happen and we continue to grow, in the future I would like to open a shop in Paris, and later, a creative school, inshallah (God willing).
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Words: Geraint Davies