Located in the very heart of Paris, the “59 Rivoli” represents a new, modern, and alternative access to art for the public. James Purpura, a resident of the “squart” with peripheral views and position, unveils the strong relation he has built up with a place that has become a figurehead of cultural alternatives to museums and galleries.
Birth of a “Squart”
“59 Rivoli” started out back in 1999 as an artists squat, or more precisely, a “squart” -for squat and art, in the building owned by the “Crédit Lyonnais” and that had been left abandoned for 15 years. The purpose of the operation was threefold: revive an unused empty place, convert the space into a place for artists to create, live and expose, and prove the validity of a cultural alternative. After a long time of insecurity and precariousness, the city of Paris finally bought it and legalized the occupation. “59 Rivoli” is a hybrid place, in between the traditional museum, an artists’ residency and a “squat.” Open 6 days a week, almost all year round, and free of charge, it claims a more democratic access to the creation process, for both the artists and the public. Because the artists are directly in relation with the public, it is an alternative to mediated art such as can be seen in museums or galleries.
Behind its intriguing façade, the six-floor building, which stands out from the other buildings of the street, reveals a palace of contemporary art. Unlike a gallery which generally only offers a selection of works, “59 Rivoli” invites you in a world of artistic creation. Each artist lives and works his/her own studio in the experimental spaces of the building. From fine arts to psychedelic paintings everyone can access almost any room of the building. This open space policy enables the visitors to see the artists in the middle of their works. This place is the perfect place to immerse in a surprising type of art: the art of movement, the art of fabrication, in other words, “art in the making”.
James Purpura: A Resident of “59 Rivoli”
Meeting with James Purpura, one of the 30 artists exhibiting in the building, means meeting his “flatmate”, Lino Di Vinci, an eclectic artist whose work spans from traditional painting to Plexiglas light art installations. The second floor is known as the “Italian floor” because James Purpura is half Italian, Luigi La Ferla and Lino Di Vinci are from Sicily and Sebastien Lecca has Italian roots. There is a lot of mutual respect among these artists who advise each other on their respective paintings, thus providing the best shared rental one can imagine.
Born in Ohio, James Purpura came to Paris as a student to study French culture and language, he suddenly fell in love with the city and decided to settle down here. A Parisian for 9 years, James Purpura considers himself lucky to have the opportunity to show his work in this place: “It is a perfect location and it is an amazing place that exists. If you go to a Museum, artists are often dead, if you go to a gallery you are never going to meet the artist. I talked with hundreds of people telling me: “I have never seen any place like it.” It is important that it is in the heart of Paris. It is important because of the visibility, there is no gallery which welcomes 2000 visitors a week.”
James Purpura is a marginal artist, the way he paints and the techniques he uses differentiate him from the others. The artist says that he is synesthete and lets his brush be guided by the sounds, the rhythms, the beats, the patterns or the lyrics of the songs he listens to. As he explains: “Synesthesia is when one sensory input triggers a different reaction. For instance, sometimes when I hear music I see visuals, it’s moving and colors are changing, that is basically what happens. (…) Some people associate colors and numbers, colors and letters. I think a lot of people have it, it is not that uncommon.” As a colorist, the form of his paintings might never be the same but it is always a story about color. According to him, Matisse and Chagall were colorists, but colorists are sparse and usually don’t even know that they are.
His unintended marginality is perceptible not only through his artistic choices and ways of painting but also through the perspective he developed on the Parisian “art world”. Most of the time the exhibitions he does are not profitable, in general he spends more than he earns, and it is a problem for him: “Sometimes it is frustrating because you invest a lot of time and money but you don’t sell anything and you wonder why you are doing this. I don’t feel part of the ‘Paris art world’, not as much as I would like to be.”
“59 Rivoli” presented itself as the perfect option for Purpura to both set up his studio in Paris and be able to exhibit his art. “I just found it by accident. I really wanted to have a studio here. I met a few artists and I asked how it worked. I applied and I waited for a year and a half, and finally got in.” A “59 Rivoli” resident for 6 years now, James Purpura has become part of the oldest artists of the building, expert at understanding its workings and the importance of this place in the Parisian landscape.
Each and every one of the residents of the “59 Rivoli” however seems to share James Purpura’s way of seeing art. The marginality of the place not only lies in the building itself but also in the artists’ philosophy. Once you go through the door, you are confronted to residents’ claims: everyone has to trample a ground of coins. Unlike the usual museum, commonly white or monochromatic, all walls are covered with various overlapping paintings. One of the most palpable feelings is the pride of being part of such project that all of the 30 artists who were granted a studio in the building express.
“Les Frigos“, “Le Point Ephemère“, “Mains d’Oeuvres“, “Le 6B“, “La Générale“, “La Villa Belleville“, “L’amour“, “Le Chène” and “Le Stendhal” are among the many other examples asserting the validity of such cultural alternatives. These places play an important role in the Parisian cultural landscape and there is a very strong commitment from the organizers and the artists to a voluntary approach promoting common interest. Even the housing associations and social landlords who manage the buildings that are initially illegally occupied, prefer these artistic collectives to settle in rather than pay for a caretaker. More, they are no longer considered as “squats”, even though the way they are being ran by the artistic collectives is heavily rooted in the “squat culture”.
Despite the expansion the model has experienced in Paris, “59 Rivoli” is considered as the figurehead of cultural alternatives. This place is unique because of its geographical position in the heart of the capital city of France. Thousands of tourists are passing by this street every day, and some of them are curious enough to enter and discover what’s behind this impressive façade. And as James Purpura puts it: “This place is essential and people are just discovering how art works here.”