Bodies of Distress: Franko B’s Paintings and Objects

• David Thorp (2006)

Franko B’s life and his relationship with art has been an unorthodox one. He is pursuing a quest to express what might be described as the beauty inherent in suffering. Franko B’s endeavour, while not the currency of mainstream contemporary art, has nonetheless been the focus for artists throughout history.

Franko B is best known for his live performances, which he began to make in the mid-nineties. He has described these acts as focusing on the visceral “where the body is a canvas and an unmediated site for representation of the sacred, the beautiful, the untouchable, the unspeakable and for the pain, the love, the hate, the loss, the power and the fears of the human condition.”[1]

In Franko B’s performances, he uses his own body as a site for the expressive representation of the visceral acts catalogued above. He exposes his own need and vulnerability in a starkly exposed manner that usually incorporates his physical nakedness, and the controlled shedding of his own blood.

In an essay on Franko B’s work[2], Sarah Wilson has provides an illuminating and detailed account of his childhood and early years. Describing him as “a latter-day Jean Genet,” she draws out parallels between their two lives.

[Like Genet], Franko generates a tension between the abject, the everyday and high culture: his hybridity constitutes an essential part of his message…Genet’s story was that of an illegitimate, adopted, changeling boy, who created a universe of homoerotic love and meaning out of the degradation of his prison experiences. She discusses Franko B’s infancy in an orphanage in Italy and his return – after a brief reconciliation with his mother as a young boy – to a Red Cross institution. The deprivation of his young life, and his initial exposure to the Renaissance art in Florence while in a Red Cross holiday camp is compared by Wilson to the discovery by Genet, in prison, of the possibilities of literature.

The surface of Franko B’s body and head are now tattooed with images. The red cross appears repeatedly on his head and the rest of his body is decorated with images and slogans that testify to the intensity of his inner life and his relationships. Layers of words, including have been etched into his back, the scars now tattooed over with the image of a red heart in a box. Beneath the heart, just below his waist, is the word ‘Beloved,’ bonded by two more hearts decorated with a border of flowers. Blue and red tattooed images cover Franko B’s cranium, they cascade down his chest and arms, they ride up his legs. Usually when Franko B makes a live performance these tattoos are concealed beneath a surface of white pigment that covers him from head to toe, allowing the dark red of his blood to be the only colour present in the work.

In an interview with Gray Watson[3], Franko B stated, ‘Like most of my work Oh Lover Boy is a painting in itself and a performance where I use the body as a site of representation…I use the body as a canvas, as a way to make pictures’. The relationship between performance and painting is long standing. Action Painting in America, and Tachism in Europe, both combined the act of mark-making with the final painted object. Happenings developed the participatory nature of the artist’s physical being as a core element within the art-making process and created a theatrical audience for an event. Often, the traces from such events became the concrete artwork, in the form of paintings or sculpture and assemblages. Sarah Wilson’s link between Franko B and Jean Genet marks a literary similarity but, within the visual arts, the Aktionism of the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch also bears comparison. Nitsch attempts to create a total art that provocatively and violently confronts the conventions of art. Making performances as part of his total theatre – the Orgien Mysterein Theatre, Nitsch ritualises the act of creation. His works have included the excesses of ritual crucifixion and animal sacrifice as he actively seeks catharsis through pain and compassion. Like the early action painters, whose paintings could be considered the outcome of a performative act, Nitsch’s paintings are incorporated into his performances, many of which incorporate smearings of blood. Blood, pain and compassion, and the corporeal viscerality of the artist’s action link Franko B with the primeval condition of art.

Throughout the history of art, the cathartic property of suffering has been central to the practice of painting. Within that genus, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian has been returned to repeatedly as a subject for painters, an icon of Renaissance art to which the young Franko B was exposed. Paintings of Saint Sebastian depict a youthful figure of great androgynous beauty, and almost without exception they portray his suffering. Semi-naked, bound to a tree or column, his body pierced with arrows, he gazes towards heaven with a beatific countenance. With the exception of Christ on the cross, Saint Sebastian was, originally, the only acceptable model available to artists wishing to paint the male nude. This and the apocryphal tales surrounding his death may have lead to his subsequent standing as a homosexual martyr. In his essay on Saint Sebastian as the homosexual’s saint, Richard Kaye writes,

In the Renaissance, Sebastian emerged as an extraordinarily popular subject for painters, perhaps rivaled only by Jesus and Mary; he was especially prized by artists who saw in the young saint a figure of Hellenic loveliness. Numerous painters–Tintoretto, Mantegna, Titian, Guido Reni, Giorgione, Perugino, Botticelli, Bazzi (“Il Sodoma”)–recast Sebastian as a martyr beatifically receptive to his arrow-ridden fate… It was primarily the Renaissance depiction of Sebastian that served a later, explicitly homosexual cult of St Sebastian that took hold with remarkable force beginning in the nineteenth century.

    The cathartic link between blood, suffering, redemption and homosexuality underpin Franko B’s art and place him firmly within an art historical trajectory that spans five hundred years.

In 2003, Franko B produced a book of photographs entitled Still Life. With a text by Tim Etchells, the book contains images of rough-sleepers and the detritus of their lives. Cardboard boxes, flattened piles of blankets and sleeping bags, shrouded bodies; each person is asleep, unidentifiable, covered by the blankets and boxes that provide their shelter. These photographs, taken by Franko B with great sensitivity, avoid any sense of exploiting his subjects. They depict beauty in distress as poignantly as any contemporary reading of the Saint Sebastian myth or the total theatre of Hermann Nitsch. Rather than aestheticise the misfortune of others, Franko B refuses to render their situations palatable for a bourgeois audience. It imbues them with a poignancy that enhances the solitary, ultimately tragic, nature of human existence. As social documents and formal compositions, the photographs parallel his painting and sculpture practice, which contains the same overlap between the social significance of contemporary life and formal arrangements.

Franko B has maintained his studio practice from the beginning of his more widely presented performance work. He ventured into two dimensions with his early collages, but his association of blood with beauty in painting came to the forefront in pieces made from the cotton wipes left over from the aftermath of his performances. There are three archetypal images that Franko B returns to again and again and, in a sense, these sum up his position as an artist. They are the figure of a man, the heart, and the cross. The man figure appears face on, reduced to the rudimentary human shape of round head, hanging arms with no hands, straight legs with no feet; characterless, featureless but, nonetheless, the primal, unmistakeable shape of original man. The heart is in the classic shape, a ‘love heart’. The cross, the symbol of the Red Cross with its equal arms, is redolent of Franko B’s young life in institutional care. In the triptych Man-Heart-Cross these three potent images stand side by side before the spectator, resolutely asserting the life and truth of Franko B’s experience. The images are made in his blood. The surface of each panel is made up of hundreds of baby soft wipes, each one used to clean up the traces of his bleeding after performances. They are retained, dried and catalogued, so that the density of blood on each one can be juxtaposed with another in order that the lights and darks of the brown dried blood create the tones that form the images. In a smaller work, For Kris, Franko B’s emotional force is clearly directed through the fundamental substance of corporeal life towards the object of his love. The softness of the surface and the basic matter of his ‘paint’ combine with the simplicity of the title to evoke a most powerful statement about the intensity of interpersonal relationships. Still Life from the same series attempts no figurative association. The simplicity of the softness and the blood establish a reinvigorated potency and relevance for the orthodox banality of the work’s title. Franko B has commented on his use of the term ‘still life,’ in relation to his photographs discussed above. The phrase relates to the notion of ‘still life’, from a range of formal and conceptual perspectives; the ‘still life’ of fine art traditions, the ‘still life’ of the body as sculpture, the ‘still life’ of sleep and the ‘still life’ of a life that seems to go nowhere.

Blood became such an essential component of Franko B’s work that by this time he was regularly bloodletting and preserving it, for use as a more conventional tool, almost as paint from a tube might be employed. In works such as Bleeding Heart and My House Has Been Broken Into, the image of the heart is placed on the field of soft wipes, and the vertical bloodlines from performances of Oh Lover Boy have been cut and collaged into the shapes of represented in the paintings. The works exist independently from the performances, at a remove from the live process.

As Franko B continued to develop these two-dimensional works, he explored the streets of East London gathering objects and taking them back to his studio: bits of furniture, religious artefacts, old toys, shoes, and anything else that caught his eye or held significance for him. Once back in his studio, he would alter the pieces he had rescued from the dump, bandaging them in bloodied canvas. These processes act as a form of nurturing, thereby creating a new identity for these useless, discarded, rejected symbols of a throwaway culture. In Franko B’s hands, this rubbish is given a new life. It is healed and protected and reintroduced to the world with a new worth. These pale sculptural forms emerge from Franko B’s fostering to be marked with his blood that appears to have is sprayed on them in a symbolic act of identification and embrace. As his collection of objects grew, Franko B returned to his process of cataloguing. He searched for discarded shelving systems, bandaging them in the same way as the objects. On these shelves he was able to elaborate his ideas of collage, the association of images and objects, by placing different objects in varying combinations and open-ended narrative relationships. Alongside pieces of bandaged furniture, large free-standing objects were each aesthetically linked with the others through a similarity of surface. A concoction of forms jostled for position in the confined space of his studio.

For several years, Franko B has been experimenting with intimate room installations, in which he would bring together earlier groups of objects to create tableau vivants. In 2001 at the Home Gallery in London, he created a complete bedroom, complete with rack of clothes, bed, chairs, soft furnishings and personal effects, all covered or fabricated out of white canvas spattered with blood. In 2004, he repeated the experiment again in London at the Great Eastern Hotel. This time the installation was more elaborate, the range of objects much greater and more diverse. The inner logic of the domestic interior was expanded into a surreal world that incorporated Franko B’s shelving systems in an association of objects that cohered in the setting of the room and en suite bathroom. The usual furnishings were in place but their function extended to include the open-ended narrative of the rescued artefacts. On the coffee table sat a tea set, on the wall behind the sofa hung a painting. Another hung above the desk with its illuminated lamp. A bowl of fruit sat on the table, the bed was made, the bed lights turned on. The room was empty, it exuded a quiet atmosphere ready for its occupant to arrive and relax. This peaceful mood was established in part by the whiteness of the bandaged canvas surfaces that covered everything. The room was virtually monochromatic, exquisitely tasteful in all but for the fact that every surface was stained in the artist’s blood. The centre of the sofa was covered in blood, the fruit, the tea set, all the clothes, everything, had its coalesced coating. But this bizarre theatricality was not macabre but, rather, contributed to the beauty of the scene. This was not the supposed site of some grisly murder. Any literal reading of the installation trivialises Franko B’s intention, which accentuated the crossover between the illusion of stability that underpins bourgeois existence and the tragic condition of life.

Methodically, Franko B has worked through his obsessions. Maintaining his live actions in performance, but under much tighter control, he has gradually begun to limit the amount of bloodletting he undergoes. He started making the bandaged shelf systems without bloodstains, and subsequently painted the objects in bright colours. The open association of forms was enhanced by an equally open combination of colours painted in impasto acrylic paint.

Although Franko B has consistently worked in two dimensions, the actual act of painting was something that he was reticent to return to. He painted as a student, but in later years his practice had moved him away from the discipline. His engagement with sculpture and installation, however, placed him on a trajectory that refocused his attention upon the external act of producing art rather than relying on the inner resources of his own body. As discussed earlier, Franko B has always had an awareness of colour and surface. In his performances the white pigment and the red blood combine in that relationship and this developed as he worked with objects. Once he expunged his blood from the objects, however, the contextual relationship between their original state and the final bandaged one ceased to have the same relevance. He asserted colour and paint themselves as the fundamental material through which he chose to express is ideas and feelings.

In 2004, Franko B started discussions with Giampaolo Abbondio, the Director of Galleria Pack in Milan. They spoke about the possibility of Galleria Pack mounting an exhibition of Franko B’s work. Action 398 was first performed a few streets away from the gallery, though Abbondio was more interested in presenting other aspects of Franko B’s practice to the Milan audience. Galleria Pack had plenty of space, and with the entire contents of Franko B’s studio shipped from London there were still two rooms that could be utilised. Keeping his colours pure and his palette restrained to a maximum of two or three, he worked on a large series of heavy circular wooden panels. Central to these paintings is the repetition of those motifs that symbolise his expressive life; the cross, the man, the heart. Gradually the bright colours have given away to black monochromes with a single impasto image. Lost in Space shows the head and shoulders of a human figure, seemingly looking out from the surface of the painting and standing in front of a huge black cross. The figure reappears in Night with a black moon behind his left shoulder. The black moon sheds no light and although the faces of the man figures never depict any features, it seems as though he faces us, rather than looking away. The man figure appears alone, as a pair or a threesome. The black (red) cross dominates and occasionally the monochrome theme is broken, as the man appears made flesh.

In his 2004 exhibition at Galleria Pack, Franko B made a life size model of himself. It stands naked on the gallery floor, a perfect replica of the artist but without a covering of white pigment nor with his tattoos and scars. It is the figure of a new man, for since its display, blood has not appeared in Franko B’s object-based work. He is facing a wall covered in a regular arrangement of small round paintings, each depicting the flesh coloured head and shoulders of the man figure. A red gash appears on almost all of the bodies, recurring like memories from a past life. It is as if Franko B has transferred the signs from the surface of his own body onto the surface of the paintings, and he stands in front of them contemplating their meaning and their relationship to his existence, the human body and the beauty that is bound up with its inner frailty. Most recently, the circular panels have been superseded by rectangles. In a new series of black paintings, Franko B has drawn portraits in impasto on matt surfaces or reproduced images taken from photographs that deal with world events.

In Aktion 398, first performed in Milan in 1998, Franko encountered audience members individually, in a small room inside a gallery. The remaining audience sat together in a waiting room, each having taken a numbered ticket from a dispenser attached to the gallery wall. As their number appeared on a digital screen each individual would enter the room on their own. Once inside, each was confronted by the artist, naked with his head and body covered in white pigment. Around his neck was a large plastic collar of the kind that animals wear to prevent them from licking their wounds. In the side of his stomach was a light cut bleeding quietly, the red blood trickling down his side across the white surface of his body. Each person could stay in the room with Franko B for up to three minutes. It was an intimate experience in which the potential for contemplation was heightened by the extreme, one to one, relationship between artist and spectator. Moving further away from himself as the focus of his live work, his latest live action is an invitation to his audience to remove their clothes. In Aktion 893 (Why Are You Here?) Franko B meets members of his audience, one to one, in an empty room. On this occasion, however, it is he who is clothed and they who are naked. The work comprises of an exchange, a conversation that takes place between them. It usually consists of an exploration of his audience’s motives for their participation, enacting a shift of emphasis that prioritises the audience over the artist. Recently, when Franko B performed the piece in Cork, Ireland, this exchange took place with over forty people over a fourteen-hour period. The title and structure of Action 893 are a reversal of Action 398, the work first performed in Milan. As the publicity for the work announces, ‘Franko B will enter the room fully clothed. Please note that you are required to be naked for this one-to-one encounter.’ This simple description of the process is redolent with the implications of this work. The meeting room is white with the windows blacked out. There are two chairs facing each other, and the participant is invited to sit on one, Franko B on the other. Franko B begins a ten-minute conversation by asking “Why are you here?” It is a simple question but one that requires a degree of honesty between the two participants, that is accentuated by the circumstances of their experience together. It is a potentially cathartic moment, as the trust necessary between artist and participant – and the courage required to reveal oneself in an alien context that exposes one’s vulnerability – is transposed into negotiations that cannot avoid an uncertain acknowledgement of sexual and power relations.

The development of Franko B’s practice has incorporated a spectrum of ideas and media that appear repeatedly, in different combinations throughout his performance, painting, and sculpture practice. Nonetheless, they never stray far from one essential state of consciousness that epitomises Franko B’s practice. It is an affirmation based on the unorthodoxy of his distinctive character, and on his ability to transcend the personal to embrace the universal through the emblematic language he has created.

[1] Franko B, I Feel Empty in LIVE: Art and Performance, Tate, London (2004)

[2] Sarah Wilson, Franko B: Haute Surveillance, Haute Couture in Oh Lover Boy, Black Dog Publishing, London (2001)

[3] Franko B in conversation with Gray Watson, Oh Lover Boy, Black Dog Publishing, London (2001)


Published in Blinded by Love

[Damiani Editore] (2006)

© 2015 Franko B and the contributors