Ingenue Interview: Ugo Nonis

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Photo: Seth Ricart

The Ingenue Interview features select artists and scene-makers from around the world, revealing their inspirations, cultural tastes, and upcoming projects. This week, Los Angeles-based artist Ugo Nonis discusses his transformative move from New York to L.A., the woman who inspired him to paint, and his unshakable faith in the power of a penny.

On December 3rd at the SnP Gallery in Echo Park, Ugo Nonis - widely known as "the French guy" from Bravo's Work of Art - will debut several new paintings on the occasion of TEN EYCK, his first solo show. Immaculate and often monochrome, his paintings teem with an all but inscrutable iconography of personal history. Whether rendered as black-on-white, white-on-black, or tone-on-tone, the lines of his paintings form the basis of a dynamic, labyrinthine code. The complexity of the narratives so cryptically expressed belies the simplicity of the geometric shapes, organic curves, and dots that comprise the compositions. Occasional accents of red hint at the emotion roiling beneath the surface.

Born and raised in Paris, Ugo lives in Marina del Rey, California. His paintings have been featured in group shows at the Happening and Chalk galleries, and he was chosen as a contestant for the second season of Bravo's creative competition series, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.

When did you start painting?
I started painting when I was living in Williamsburg with my roommate, and he's a painter. It was about five years ago. We decided to get some canvases for our friends to doodle on, and I grabbed one of the canvases and started using markers on it. I've never stopped since then. I was an instant love affair.

What's your typical work day like?
I usually wake up at six in the morning and go surfing. After that, I have about an hour to forty-five minutes to paint, and that's usually when I do my painting. Then I go to my day job as an art director for motion graphics. When I come home I try to relax a little bit, but if I have a deadline or a commission, I'll paint at night. On weekends, I try to paint a few hours, either Saturday or Sunday.

Do you listen to music as you paint?
I sometimes do. It does happen quite often, but not always. It's not a rule.

What do you listen to? Any particular artists?
Well, I have a few fallback artists, but I'm using this new service which allows me to explore new music. Right now, I'm really trying to change my music-listening patterns, because I've been stuck since the early nineties. So, it's time...

[Laughing] Stuck on what?
On Pearl Jam.

Oh. [Still laughing] I'm not laughing at you...
Yeah, you are. It's okay.

It's not embarrassing.
No, it's the truth.

So, how do you feel about Los Angeles as an artistic community?
Well, when I was in New York, it was the very beginning of my journey as an artist, so I didn't really get to experience New York. But when I came out here, it was a good shift, because I came out here painting already. So it was, 'You're established already,' at least in my head. I was already painting, so it was easier for me to introduce myself as an artist and a painter. I think that's the most important thing: before anyone considers you anything, you have to consider yourself. So, moving out here really helped me come to terms with being a painter, and using that term and not being shy or like, 'Who am I fooling? I'm not a painter'. That transition was good.

And, as far as the art world here, it's a lot broader. Meaning, there's more space for different styles and the galleries are bigger. There are more walls. So I think there are more opportunities here than in New York. I haven't explored a lot of it, but I do feel there are a lot more opportunities [in Los Angeles] for an artist like me.

When you paint, does the medium of the materials that you use influence how you design?
I don't know. No, I'm kidding. I mostly use oil paint markers and there are different sizes, different colors. I think the different sizes definitely influence the design because [with larger markers] it's a simpler and less intricate kind of approach. So, I tend to represent objects and things a lot when I do those paintings, because I can't put so many things.

Each painting is kind of a diary. This painting (below) is about two girls. It's their world: where they live, where they work, and dialogues that we've had. It's really easy with a thinner marker to put all these details. But when I use thicker markers or a big brush, then it would be more of one statement. Like, I made a painting inspired by a movie, and there are four vignettes. But that's it. It doesn't go as intricate. So, the size of the marker forces me to have a different depth into the paintings.


What about your first painting? Is there a story in it as well?
Yeah, the first one... (below) There was no goal, there were no expectations. And I think that's why I'm painting today, because from the beginning I never had expectations on myself. I never told myself, 'Oh, I gotta be a great artist', or, 'Oh, I don't know how to draw, so I can't do this', or, 'I can't do that'. It was a very innocent approach.

The painting represents this relationship that I had with a woman. Her name is all over the canvas, and my intention was to give it to her in the end. My roommate at the time told me that I was crazy to give her that painting, because it took me about six months and I put so much work into it and she didn't deserve it. And I'm thankful that he was there, because that would have been a foolish thing to do... [I'm] not saying that I wouldn't give a painting to someone that I love, but she wasn't the right person. So, the painting's still with me, and it's great to look back at it and know that, in a way, even if this woman didn't make me happy in life, she helped me create my first work of art.


Which artists do you admire?
One artist that I really respect is JR because of his commitment to social issues and the way he's representing them. People can be like, 'Oh, he's doing big portraits and pasting them on big walls', but I think it's very simple, very powerful, and very inspiring for me to see that. You can take something simple and put it at the right place, and it means something really, really powerful. I have a more personal approach to the way I express myself - which is maybe more inward for now - which is where I draw from my life instead of social events. I do realize that art is a good way to express convictions, as well, and I'm sure that in the future I'll use that means to talk about things that I think are a problem. To be honest with you right now, I'm trying to explore myself first before I can make a statement on a bigger scale, on a social scale. So JR is a big inspiration.

Who else? I've always loved Mode 2, since I was a little kid. He's a street artist from England, and he's really amazing at that and designing characters. I've always been a huge fan of his.

I really like Basquiat and Keith Haring. I know a lot about Keith Haring, because [people] have referenced him a lot when they see my work. I like his simple design, and I like the childish approach that he had to his serious messages about AIDS and sexuality and things like that.

I like Thomas Campbell. He's a painter and director. He does a lot of surf movies. He was part of that group of artists that's called the Beautiful Losers. I saw a documentary and I've always liked his movies, and then I discovered his art. I like his approach to color and shape.

Speaking of movies, would you explain the Penny Project?
The Penny Project is an art project to finance an art project. I've had this dream of making a movie... telling a story, first and foremost, but in the medium of a movie. I've had that idea for a long, long time, and I never really acted upon it. And one day I found a penny on the ground and I got struck... I made a decision right there and then because I felt really compelled... that this penny was going to be the start of my movie.

What I did was I started a photography project where I give a penny to someone, and they give me whatever they want in exchange and that money goes into financing the movie. And it's a crazy idea, but I've been doing it for three years now, and I have more than 620 pictures. Pictures from all over the world, from people of all ages. It's been a blessing to meet all of those people, and in the process, it acts as an engine for me to keep on moving forward with the movie. I'm writing the movie and thinking about how to make it a reality. Without the Penny Project, it wouldn't be in my mind so often and it would be still a dream, I think, where as now I know the movie's going to happen.

The movie's actually one step toward what the real goal is. And the real goal is to take the profit from the movie and create an art grant, and help other artists create projects and somehow find a way to feed the Penny Project that so it can help other people. So basically, it would be a grant, and then the artists would create their projects and find a way to keep the ball rolling in one way or another.

I don't have all the answers, I don't know exactly how it's going to work, but so far I have my next step. And the next step is to make a very navigable, browsable website where people can experience the Penny Project, and the pictures and the people, and spend a few minutes on it and hopefully get the idea and feel compelled to be part of it. I only need four million people to donate a dollar for my movie to happen, so... I think it's - I mean, it's going to happen, I have no doubt.

What's next for you?
Right now I'm preparing for my solo show. For me, it is just a way to take everything that I've done up to now, and display it, look at it, and share it with people. And the next painting I start after the show is actually a commissioned work. But once the show is up, I'm just going to have fun. I'm having fun now, but I'm kind of producing on a deadline. And I'm really happy to show the paintings that I've been doing, so that's what's coming up. It's my first solo show, and I'm just really excited to meet all the people and say "Hi" and give high-fives.

For more about Ugo and the Penny Project, please visit: and

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