Crown Heights

Brooklyn Museum debuts massive exhibition from mysterious artist JR

October 4, 2019 Alex Williamson
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A trans-national picnic table.

Eyes staring down from the hills of one of Brazil’s poorest neighborhoods.

Hundreds of New Yorkers photographed and collaged into an enormous mural.

These are a few of the projects on view at “JR: Chronicles,” Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibition from JR, a French muralist, photographer and filmmaker who’s been pushing the boundaries of street art for more than 15 years while staying largely out of the media spotlight and maintaining an air of personal mystery.

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JR (French, born 1983) “The Gun Chronicles,” 2018. Installation view, La Maison Européenne de la Photographie. Video, black and white, sound; 4 min. loop. © JR-ART.NET. Photo by Claire Dome, courtesy Perrotin

The artist is known for his monumental public projects that rely on participation from his subjects, and for tackling hot-button social issues — immigration, women’s rights and gun control, for a few — through his art.

“We are very focused on showing work that is really, truly relevant and connects to the issues that we’re facing in our everyday lives,” said curator Sharon Atkins. “I think JR really does that so well, and it’s part of why we’ve chosen to show his work here.”

The “Chronicles” exhibit is currently occupying 20,000 square feet of the museum’s Great Hall, making it the largest North American exhibition for the artist to date.

“JR: Chronicles” at Brooklyn Museum is the French artist’s largest solo museum exhibition to date and will be on view Oct. 4 through May 3, 2020. Eagle photo by Alex Williamson

At the center of the exhibit is the “Chronicles of New York City” mural, a massive collage of more than 1,000 New Yorkers who were photographed and interviewed by JR over the summer of 2018.

While not quite reaching Banksy-levels of enigmatic behavior (he has given a TED Talk and granted several interviews), JR guards his personal information closely. He’s careful to avoid being photographed without face-obscuring sunglasses and goes only by his initials.

For that reason, JR’s backstory is somewhat sparse. He has told reporters that he grew up on the outskirts of Paris with an Eastern European father and a Tunisian mother, and that, as a teen, he joined a group of graffiti artist friends on their nighttime tagging adventures, sometimes joining in, sometimes hanging back to photograph them with a camera he’d found on the Paris Métro.

“Really, I think even at that earliest stage it was JR documenting, photographing, but really collaborating,” said Atkins. “I think that’s something that’s continued in a large majority of the work that he’s created since then.”

He had frequent run-ins with the law as an adolescent for minor infractions. He was expelled from school a year before graduation, right around the time he started climbing onto rooftops with a can of spray paint and leaving his tag.

JR (French, born 1983) 28 Millimétres, Portrait d’une génération, B11, Destruction #2, Montfermeil, France, 2013. Installation image. Wheat-pasted posters on building. Eagle photo by Alex Williamson

Today, despite exhibitions at major art institutions around the world, a 2011 TED Prize — an award that came with $100,000 — a co-director credit on an Oscar-nominated film and being named one of Time’s most-influential people of 2018, JR’s work maintains some of that graffiti-world guerilla sensibility.

He erected a massive mural in 2017 over the U.S.-Mexican border in the city of Tecate, Mexico, an enlarged photo of a small child nicknamed Kikito peering playfully over the border wall as if it were the side of a crib. JR installed that project without asking for permission from authorities on either side of the wall, noting that it wasn’t firmly in either country’s jurisdiction.

“I’ve been in these cases before where no one will take responsibility, but they’re not going to stop you. I just go for it. That’s enough for me,” he told the New Yorker at the time.

A hall in the exhibition showcases the artist’s filmmaking work over the past 15 years. Eagle photo by Alex Williamson

Another throughline in JR’s work is participation from his subjects, often people whose humanity has been ignored or forgotten in the midst of political controversy.

After three men were murdered in Rio de Jainero’s Morro da Providência favela in 2008, JR took close-up photographs of women from the area, many who were relatives of the victims. He enlisted locals to wheatpaste enormous prints of the women’s eyes onto the walls of the favela’s hillside shanties, staring down at the wealthier city below.

When news crews arrived to ask about the murals, the artist had already left town, and journalists were forced to seek answers from the neighborhood’s long-ignored residents.

For the last day of the “Kikito” exhibition in Tecate, JR celebrated with an enormous, transnational picnic. Kikito, his family and other guests on both sides of the border sat down to share a meal at a long table split down the middle by the wall.

Photos of JR’s past projects, including the “Kikito” exhibit and picnic, are on display at Brooklyn Museum alongside newer work, most notably his “Chronicles of NYC” mural.

Part of: JR (French, born 1983). The Chronicles of New York City, 2018-19. Eagle photo by Alex Williamson

To create the mural, JR spent a month last summer driving around the city in a 53-foot truck that had been converted into a portable photo studio, complete with green screen.

He parked at spots around the city, including in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg, Flatbush and Coney Island, and invited more than 1,000 New Yorkers into the makeshift studio where he photographed and interviewed them.

“He did an audio recording of their story, of, how did they come to be in New York? What did New York mean to them?” said Atkins, noting those interviews will be part of the “Chronicles of NYC” mural at Brooklyn Museum. “I think a lot of times, if you ask someone from Brooklyn, what does New York City mean to you? They’re going to respond with what Brooklyn means to them,” she said.

Atkins says curators are also planning installations for a number of JR murals on brick walls around the borough, locations to-be-announced.

“JR: Chronicles” opens at Brooklyn Museum Oct. 4 and will run through May 3, 2020. Visitors will have a chance to be photographed for JR’s “Inside Out” project on Oct. 5 from 5-9:30 p.m., and the portraits will be wheatpasted in the museum.

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