Tucked away in a former perfume factory is the quiet pulse of France’s emerging art scene. POUSH Manifesto is home to hundreds of tomorrow’s art stars, as Isabella Fergusson discovers
In the rugged northern suburbs of Paris, a vast industrial campus of artists’ studios is monumental and candidly unassuming. Horns and snorting roadworks, on the suburban highway outside, shroud the building. At first sight, the visit to POUSH Manifesto – a kind of incubator for emerging artists – looks unpromising. We enter through a dishevelled side door. This is a far cry from the glamour of the central Paris art scene, only five kilometres away.
High, arched walls are slapped with sterile paint; light seeps through enormous windows. Along long, dark corridors, under twitching lights, each studio door bears the name of its artist. It’s like something between a prison and a Wes Anderson film.
With 250 artists, each working separately away, one feels – as POUSH artist Madeleine Roger-Lacan puts it – “the great quiet buzz of creativity”. They gather, sometimes, for open studio visits. When they do, it is in the building’s immense central space – a sort of car park chic, punctuated by stone pillars and lit by an octagonal skylight.
Launched in March 2020, curator and lecturer Laure Confravreux-Colliex, along with former publisher Hervé Digne, co-founded the POUSH project to instigate both neighbourhood developments and the broader expansion of the French cultural scene. Moving to its current location, Aubervilliers, in April 2022, it holds studio-work spanning mediums from visual arts to dance and performance. Artists are cradled and expanded by a network of international reach, through support from fellow artists and POUSH organisers.
POUSH Manifesto is more than just artists’ studios. It is a statement by Paris that the city will once more be the central pulse of European art. Since Art Basel’s second Paris+ this year, seizing the potentially frail state of Frieze London post-Brexit, the art fair attempts to stamp Paris as the next core of the emerging art scene. And artists from more than thirty different countries have come here to work.
Meet Cecilia Granara, whose Italian heritage and life across Saudi Arabia, Mexico City and Chicago shapes her work. “Depending on cultural context”, she tells me, standing in the position of the tree painting which she inspects, “we interpret art very singularly”. For Cecilia, symbols are both culturally particular and universal.
Her works are backlit by a deep, almost volcanic, orange. “I start with yellow,” she says, “then paint darker colours on top – that creates a warm glow.” One can see this in the immense, scaled creature – somewhere between serpent and human – which stands behind her, shooting out fire. What is depicted? “Iconography of pregnancy in European art history is expansive; scenes of birth are not.” Here, she says, is a representation of “giving birth, metaphorically, magically, physically.”
Across the wall, reaching across canvases are hands, which are, as Cecilia notes, “our tools – our connection to the heart and brain”. Bodies stretch beyond the canvas, directly onto the wall above. How did this come about? Painting, one day, arms extended themselves into bodies on a wall: “The characters seem to have appeared of their own will!”
Cecilia’s warm colours are splashed across a huge canvas, a current project for the a central London hospital, created to absorb and reduce anxiety. Lying flat and covering most of her studio floor, the circular shape seems a whirlpool. Giggling, she says, “I’d like to dive right into it”.
Across the corridor is the studio of her friend, Parisian painter Madeleine Roger-Lacan. Nestled away in her POUSH studio, she is surrounded by frescoed walls and large, intimate portraits, drawing on mythology and theatre. A painting of a body lies upon a skeleton. ‘Your Flowers Will Pierce Me’, she calls her inspection of death and regeneration. Stuck directly onto the earthy work is dirt from the studio floor itself: old dust and clementines resembling fungi are strewn across the canvas. And, wheeling her table of paints across the room, she whisks up a great canvas – about the size of a single bed – and places it on the floor.
The black and white work, ‘Lay Down With Me’, covered with her writing in French and English, speaks frankly of creative struggles. “Spirals of thoughts make you heavy with doubt, and sometimes makes its too hard to go forward.” Behind the painting, a figure flops quite literally out of a canvas, cut out by Madeleine. Laying bare the wooden bones of canvases across her work, intimate portraits speak of the mundane and erotic in sentimental life.
Down the stairs, one finds John Fou, former dancer, circus-performer and self-taught artist. Wearing a t-shirt that he painted with a friend, he towers over one with a friendly gait. He is surrounded by pencil pots, and his pencil-on-canvas compositions, in which rich colours and ribbon-like shapes nod to his thespian background. Does anyone else use pencil on canvas like him? “Not to my knowledge”, he smiles humbly.
Drawing upon cave paintings and mythology, he repeatedly turns to the symbol of the sword. This is inspired by Saint George, his “avatar”. “A figure that has been used in so many ways”, John wanted to give a “kind or sensibility to this figure, some softness”. Now, George appears in his own right, “like an exercise of style”. Occasionally, John replaces his pencil for a fork. When he does, it is for Chef Marouane – of whom John is a great fan, for gathering POUSH’s artists together each week for fine food and conviviality.
These are just three of POUSH’s artists, and one can feel their web-like connection, in collaborative exhibition, artwork and friendship. As Madeleine puts it, “the opportunity to have functional studios in a close Parisian suburb, surrounded by a buzzing community, and accompanied by an administrative structure that you don’t have to take care of. More freedom to create!’
Written by: Isabella Fergusson
Online Editor: Candice Tucker