Art's Naturel Progression to Big Biz
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s an art revolution happening … right in big business’s backyard.
By Datwon Thomas
It tends to be a truism that to reign in the art world, you need to be in the cool minority. Call it what you will: rebellion, edge, disruption. But sometimes, the art world’s greatest creators aren’t starving in the streets. And in fact today, some of our most brilliant creatives come from corporations.
One such visual visionary is the artist Naturel (pronounced Natu-rel), aka Lawrence Atoigue. His gallery? Instagram. His canvas? The world. His patron? Corporations. His take? Not sorry about it.
Whether or not you realize it, you can see the work of great corporate creatives everywhere, from Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans to Jean Michel Basquiat in a Reebok sneaker.
Naturel, known for his signature style of “vector” art is for his part, exceptional – making wild waves in both artistic form and the model that upholds art.
But let’s begin with the art itself: Vector styles use digitally created shapes and shading in computer-generated graphics to eventually produce one larger image. Think of it like a set of computerized puzzle pieces, coming together to make an integrated image.
Naturel’s trademark stamp is the larger product of that process, and that product is … risqué. They’re NC-17 images of naked women’s body parts, of skeleton frames seated atop horses in a dark reinterpretation of the Polo shirt logo. Naturel has even dared to reappropriate Michael Jordan’s legs-spread Jumpman logo — you know, the one you’ve seen on every pair of Air Jordan sneakers — and replaced MJ with Tupac, Jay Z and Washington Redskins quarterback RG3. Big business? No railing against it here. It’s his very form of expression.
And he is a businessman in his own right: sales on his site (www.allburgundy.com – where limited-edition prints start at $180) are booming. You could even call him a marketing whiz, able to capitalize on his 30,000 Instagram followers to cash in on a new project via a one-hit social media announcement.
The Prince George County, Md., native didn’t initially have dreams of being a visual producer. In his early days, he wanted to be a rapper. “I started rapping when I was 10 and started doing art when I was 14,” he says, in a kind of laid-back jazz musician’s tone – one he may have picked up from his father, who played bass in a band when Naturel was growing up.
Naturel’s natural (no pun intended) love of the arts led him to the Pratt Institute, New York’s prestigious palace of art instruction, to pursue both passions of art and rap music.
But many a great artist has struggled with time management, and when the question loomed – for love or money? – Naturel answered. He picked the breadwinner: the graphic arts. But welcome to the era when no one dares to call that selling out. Naturel found himself working closely on designs for Jay Z’s Rocawear brand, back when former partner in the company, Dame Dash, was in charge. Shortly after starting there, Jay Z took over operations, buying Dash out. As Naturel explains, “We would present stuff to [Jay Z] 3 days out the week. It was an education working with him. For him to be as big of a [celebrity], but humble as he was with his status, indirectly taught me to be humble. He brings everybody to his level.” Even working with greats like Jay Z will send one on their own road to riches and to explore other opportunities. So Naturel left Rocawear for his own glory.
“I’ve been a designer, illustrator, like an everything guy for different brands. Then I went off and did my own ‘til I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says, and you can still hear stress in his voice. “I was just really burnt out and I took jobs here and there to pay the bills. I had this one job that was on the table that kind of forced me to think in a minimalist way.”
Is this form of artistry a nose-in-the-air to the oft-held view that art should remain not for profit? Many of the current greats – like Futura for his abstract rawness, Shepard Fairey with his entrepreneur skills, Kaws’ tackling of iconic themes – take on projects with corporate entities, interspersing the political stances their creations take with (necessary) prosperity in a promoted project.
Naturel, for his part, doesn’t have much of a political agenda: He’s an artist who seems borne entirely out of the 21st century – of the digital age, in flesh and blood, native to the net, with corporations less something to criticize than to weave into the canvas of his world as he sees it.
Don’t just listen to us, though. Leo Vasquez, curator of the New York-based Sound of Art gallery, weighs in: “It’s a balance between paper and passion. They need money to do what they want to do. Warhol did Dom Perignon bottles and used it to serve as a marketing platform.” And yes, collaborations give access to the masses that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford their normal price points. “A Kaws piece could run upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but for less than $100.00 I can purchase a Hennessey special and own a piece of art.”
So maybe the intimate relationship between corporations and art is the oldest thing in the book.
Either way, Naturel is redefining it – and owning it in a new way. Exhibit A: his breakthrough social media exercise, which he called the #30minuteWorkout. The challenge: He would have 1800 seconds to create a themed piece and post it up on Instagram as a friendly challenge with other art creating friends. He began this campaign at first out of necessity for companies that needed quick turnaround times for freelance graphic design work. Accepting the challenge blended passion and productivity and a way to grow his skills while making money with businesses. Kind of like art fitness training.
“I was trying to take my maximist style and get that minimal sensibility to it,” Naturel says.
Which could be viewed as bringing corporate efficiency to creative process. In doing so Naturel earned himself thousands of fans from this open-door process, all documented on Instagram. And then, inevitably, the big boys called.
So began the laundry list: Nike commissioned him to chronicle a full timeline of the LeBron James signature sneaker series. The NBA super star was so impressed by the outcome that he re-posted the final looks on his Instagram page, complete with a rare artist shout-out. With Levi’s, Barcardi Rum and the NFL as former collaborators you could say that paves a pretty nice road for the future. So, what’s next? More collaborations like the ones with jewelry supplier to the stars Mr. Flawless, footwear with Timberland, spirits (Moet) and galleries showcasing his work.
And where do we leave Naturel? Somewhere in the throes of a still-complicated question. Social media is empowering: the ultimate equalizer, the bullet that can shoot a new artist from the bottom of the barrel to the highest heights. There you get the walk of the walk – but how do you make it on your own? You grind the work out, stay a step ahead and take the big corporations in tow.