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Devotional Imagery

Portrait_2014

British fine artist James Straffon has applied a Pop Art approach to bike culture, taking cycling art to a higher level.

In 2005, a year shy of his 40th birthday, artist and designer James Straffon visited a notable London bike store and purchased his first wheels. This moment sparked a journey that would reach back over a century, pass through the multifarious chapters of cycling folklore, chase the legends of Grand Tours, while seeking the rare and coveted trophies of their time.

Straffon had worked as a graphic designer for companies such as The Royal Opera House, Tate Modern, EMI and The Royal Academy of Arts. He founded an online cycling journal, wrote articles for magazines such as The Ride and, ultimately, took the plunge into a full-time fine-art vocation. While researching for an article on New York’s Brooklyn bike scene, Straffon came across an artist called Taliah Lempert. He cites this moment as a turning point: “I’d noted the generic attempts at what might be called ‘bike art’. And they [artists] all seemed to grasp for the obvious. With such a visually loaded narrative, I felt cycling had somehow been overlooked. Then, by chance, I stumbled upon these amazing ‘bike portraits’ and quickly saw there was a way to fuse and focus my frenzied, and often chaotic, research into something considered and worthy. I owe a lot to Miss Lempert.”

Alpina Alpina (Head Badge Series 2009)
Gitane Gitane (Head Badge Series 2009)
Pashley Pashley (Head Badge Series 2009)

At this point Straffon created his first series of cycling-focused artworks - Head Badges - a collection of photorealist paintings that would include classics such as Bianchi, Peugeot, Gitane, Pashley and Raleigh, among others. He then shifted into mixed media, creating complex collages using rare items of original ephemera, binding these with paint, pen and resin.
“It was quite a steep learning curve. I was seeking out these wonderful, often very rare items of cycling memorabilia, then attacking them with paint, pigment pens, and last a layer of indiscriminate industrial resin. Frequently I would pass beyond the point of no return… yes, there were a few canvases that didn’t make it!”

Redemption_1-1 Redemption (2014)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I was using the gallery space to create a place of worship.”

His vibrant creations owe much to the obsessive eye of the collector; with it, an appreciation of the erstwhile and endangered media that litter our heritage: the printed paper form, letterpress typography, film-shot photography, hand-painted objects and the forgotten allure of scrapbook assemblage. As British pop artist Peter Blake had used rock ‘n’ roll as a form of ready-made, Straffon’s muse was the mythology of bicycle culture; the heroes and antiheroes of yesteryear reworked into a modern framework. He quickly amassed a capsule collection of unique canvases, incorporating vintage magazine covers, bygone toys, obscure collectible cigarette cards, even razor blades endorsed by Tour legend Fausto Coppi. “As with any entrepreneurial venture, there is a high degree of risk. More so with fine art. It’s loaded with subjectivity. That said, I was confident my journey would lead somewhere new.”

In 2010, fellow cycling devotee Paul Smith came across Straffon’s artworks and began an ongoing recognition of his work. An initial exhibition at the new Paul Smith Globe Store, located within Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, proved a great success. That same year Straffon was able to self-finance his first central London exhibition -
The Art of Cycling - at the Frameless Gallery on Clerkenwell Green. Continuing to adopt what he termed “a pop art approach to bike culture”, the artist presented a mixed exhibition over two floors. The core body of work grew out of a carefully sourced treasure trove of vintage cycling memorabilia. “Suddenly I could see that my focus wasn’t about cycling per se. It was about stories. These were my raw forms.
I could retell these adventures in a new way. I was sculpting with time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tour de France becomes art

Grand Tour (2012) Grand Tour (2012)

In 2011, British cyclist David Millar launched his much-anticipated autobiography – Racing Through the Dark:
The Fall and Rise of David Millar
– at Paul Smith’s Floral Street store in London’s Covent Garden. In conjunction, Straffon’s latest works were deftly placed throughout the shop’s many wooden display cabinets, nestling between items of jewellery, fine-tailored jackets and streetwise brogues. “I was now experimenting with découpage onto three-dimensional forms: bike frames, cycling shoes, saddles. I recall Gary Kemp bought my Merckx Saddle artwork at the launch event for Millar’s book. So opportunities to show this work to the public were starting to open up. I’m indebted to Paul Smith for playing his part in that process.”

GS EMI (Jerseys Series 2012) Bianchi, ACCB-Saint Raphaël-Helyett-Hutchinson (Jerseys Series 2012)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GS EMI (Jerseys Series 2012) Bianchi, ACCB-Saint Raphaël-Helyett-Hutchinson (Jerseys Series 2012)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The summer of 2012 would see cycling fever hit record highs in the UK. As Bradley Wiggins raced through the avenues of France, wearing the coveted ‘maillot jaune’, Straffon’s first major solo exhibition - LE TOUR - was running at SNAP Galleries in London’s Piccadilly. Showing over 50 new works, with an accompanying coffee-table book produced by Rapha, Straffon had arrived at a place that he suggested was ‘an apotheosis’. “I had been given free rein to produce a body of work. And had been working on what I called ‘devotional imagery’. In this I was repositioning the immortals of cycling folklore – the likes of Coppi, Merckx, Anquetil, Bartali, Simpson – in an act of pseudo-resurrection. I was using the gallery space to create a place of worship, with the large LE TOUR work as my altar piece.”

Paul Smith store, Floral Street, London Paul Smith store, Floral Street, London

A positive vibe

Le Tour (frame 2012) Le Tour (frame 2012)

The link with pro cyclist David Millar continued, with the rider penning the prologue within the LE TOUR book. In this he writes, “James Straffon encapsulates all this perfectly when he refers to the ‘rich tapestry’ that is the Tour and he has indeed ‘picked apart’ the threads in order to understand the life within. James has taken up the challenge and found a visual vocabulary for the chaos, he has brought it all together: the Tour de France has become art”.

GS EMI (Jersey Series 2012) GS EMI (Jersey Series 2012)

The following year, Straffon returned to Snap Galleries, celebrating the 100th Tour de France with a new body of work. Moving from original collaged artworks, 100e was presented
as 12 unique limited-edition prints, each themed around a line from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Writer Graeme Fife, author of The Beautiful Machine, wrote: “These prints are a lollapalooza, an egregious tribute to the great bike race. Sensitively conceived and beautifully produced, the collection pulses with that sentiment, which pumps through the extraordinary events on the roads, every July since 1903.” Straffon states that this print series was a Grand Tour in itself. “I like to up the ante with each new series. Reading the entirety of Paradise Lost before even beginning the creative phase was no mean feat! 100e was shown within white frames on white walls. I wanted the space to feel like some small room, off a remote corridor within the British Museum. As if these precious, delicate prints had been unearthed and were being shown for the first time. 100e was all about the ephemeral.”

“I like to up the ante with each new series. Reading the entirety of Paradise Lost before even beginning the creative phase was no mean feat!”

Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down Till Pride And Worse Ambition Threw Me Down (100e Series 2013)
No66-1 Pandaemonium (100e Series 2013)

 

Carbon, Sulphur and Paint

faces Harry Bins Art Giveaway (2014)

Controle_Anti_dopage-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In early 2013, RedHouse Originals Gallery in Harrogate, Yorkshire, approached Straffon with an exhibition proposal. One year later, he presented a special solo exhibition - Carbon, Sulphur and Paint - taking the northern town by storm. With the Tour de France visiting British soil for the first three stages, the first of ending in Harrogate, cycling fever consumed the county. Not only would Straffon create a gallery show, he was commissioned to produce a vast mural, had a special Tour beer brewed in his honour and gave away free art in a highly publicised act of gratitude, releasing one artwork a day onto the streets. “I knew this was my final Tour-specific show. So wanted to explore new areas - stencil work, graffiti markers – a much more street-art approach. Additionally, I wanted to fully embrace my love of pop art, with some particular homage pieces. The show was a great event to wrap up this phase of my work. There was an ITV interview in the gallery.

Fact_wide The Legends Mural. The Factory Building, Harrogate (2014)
Harry-1 Harry Binns (Legend Series 2014)

We created a very positive vibe. I had a lot of fun with it. And was indulged by
a discerning group of individuals, who allowed me to push some boundaries.
So although I was manipulating some familiar characters, to create works,
new faces were emerging. Among these was the engrossing Harry Binns.”

 

Velo City Limited Edition Prints

With a growing following worldwide, and his decision to make 2014 his last Tour series, what next from artist James Straffon?

“You often get an unexpected event to spark new work. Just as my Carbon, Sulphur and Paint show was closing, I met Gretta at Velorution. This triggered an opportunity to challenge myself, and change direction. Somebody once said ‘It’s not about the bike.’ Which is a maxim somewhat relevant to my work to date. So I decided to subvert that thought, and explore the object, or the engine which has driven my journey. The end result is Velo City.”

SE16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

N1 copy SE1 copy E14

In creating this limited edition series, focussed on the bicycle, and its many auxiliary features, Straffon has explored the materiality of bike culture - from the patina of fine leather, to the allure of polished chrome; the tension of steel spokes, to the scent of fresh tyres - Velo City is a very sensory experience. Masking a composite, and deliberately abstract vista, his ten compositions exact a fantastic, almost filmic homage to the hedonism of riding through a city; each artwork appointed its own point of reference - a London postcode.

“Velo City, itself a play on velocity, is highly visceral. I’ve refocussed my point of reference. Yet still created devotional imagery. If one thinks about places of worship, within the city, they are dripping in opulence. There is this tangible vision of polished metals, satin fabrics, carved oak, jewelled windows. Transpose that experience out onto the street, and you have Velo City - a veneration for the bike. Within each piece, I decided to partly obscure, or confound the complete viewpoint, as if you are peeking through a masked aperture. Or a fissure between two buildings. I wanted to create that sense of voyeurism. Essentially it’s a body of work on urban velo-fetishism!”

Velorution images

 

 

 

Velo City is available to buy exclusively through Velorution, both online, and instore.

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