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Jules Backus began this series in 1993. The narratives unfolded by his Leica are as layered as the cracked and crumbling walls of Paris' working class districts. The stenciled images (pochoirs) he encountered on these walls attracted him immediately.

They are assertions of beauty in the midst of decay, exhortations against banality and boredom, skewerings of the cruelties of officialdom.

Backus found a deep political and spiritual identification with the pochoiristes and their work. They clicked with his sense of humor and sense of history.

The streets of Paris have been the stage for repeated upheavals and revolutions, their walls a ready medium for direct communication: canvases for political posters, public galleries for artists, and surfaces for anarchistic, individual scribblings. A century of official prohibitions, "Defense d'Afficher," only fertilized a flowering tradition that has embraced everything from the fine art of muralists to the cabalistic lettering of graffiti writers. The pochoirs represented in this show began to appear in the early 1980s. Of the thousands of images created by dozens of pochoiristes, Backus focused on a relative handful.

Politically, pochoirs are descendants of the cultural manifestoes and situationist proclamations that marked the student and working class rebellions of the 1960s. Aesthetically, they are linked more to a French painterly tradition than to the illustrationist roots of the American graffiti that exploded on the world's walls in the 1970s. The figurative images of the pochoiristes to some extent represent a reaction to graffiti writing.

The consciseness of a stencil image and its capacity for rapid reproduction engenders a sense of freedom. But like generations of muralists and poster artists, the pochoiristes' work is not just about self-expression. Idiosyncratic, whimsically provocative, fond of double entendre and wordplay (those who sign their work use allusive pseudonyms), these artists seek interaction with passers-by through their images. They also interact with each other, sometimes working jointly on a wall, sometimes stealing up in the night to add an image that extends the context of another's work.

The peeling paint and evaporating plaster richly displayed in Backus' photographs are testimony to the ephemerality of the pochoirs. Most of the images photographed in this exhibition have disappeared, washed away by the city, covered over by others, damaged by taggers and the erosion of time. Even some of the walls that bore them have been demolished by the process of development and gentrification the pochoirs often opposed. This transitoriness appealed to Backus: pochoirs are marks of passing thoughts, free art that resists objectification and commodification.

His choice of media for printing his photographs has a mishieveous parallel to the pochoirs themselves. The large images are Iris prints, the smaller ones are laser reproductions. Both processes involve scanning the original color slide to create a digitized computer file, a kind of electronic stencil, that can be endlessly and relatively quickly reproduced. But the ink jet process that creates an Iris print of such painterly quality is still considered "fugitive." The Iris' water soluble inks are more sensitive to light and climate deterioration than photographic prints. Their longevity depends on ink and paper quality and storage conditions. Like the pochoirs, they are ephemeral, non-archival.

It was in the spirit of the pochoirs for Jules Backus to make beautiful images and then leave their fate to others. Certainly the spirit of his work, the hope and the soul it embodied, will leave its provocative imprint for future generations.

Salut! Jules.
Brian Drolet


Born Julian Standish Backus on September 3, 1944, into a prominent Detroit family, Backus was quick to become a refugee from his class (upper) and his schooling (crusty). As a teenager in the late 1950s, he actively embraced the Beats. Bypassing college in 1962, Backus bounced around Europe for two years, preferring motion to moss, Bohemia to suburbia, and Holy Barbarians to Men in Gray Flannel Suits, preferences he retained to his dying day.

In 1964, he attended the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, plunging into photography, avant garde art, and anti-war activity. By 1967 he had renounced his student deferment and burned his draft card with enough panache to end up in the Detroit papers. The subsequent struggle with his draft board propelled him into two years of service in Puerto Rico as a conscientious objector.

Upon his return to the U.S., Backus joined a small West Coast band of video pioneers who were experimenting with the newly developed Portapac video camera. Exploiting the revolutionary technology's light weight and mobility, Backus and his cohorts created independent works that challenged the values and aesthetic of American mass market television. In 1970, he co-founded Optic Nerve, a video and photography collective in San Francisco. In 1972, he became an active member of the Bay area Video Coalition.

For the next two decades, his face was rarely seen without a camera lens protruding from it. Shuttling between coasts, he worked primarily as a director of photography, but also as a producer, editor, and still photographer, aiding and abetting the work of numerous video artists and mediamakers, including Chip Lord, Doug Hall, Skip Blumberg, Branda Miller, Antonio Muntadas, Joan Jonas, and Kathy High. Backus brought his own style and stance to everything he shot, from severe weather in the Bering Sea [Storm and Stress], to miniaturized dads caught in traps [Every Saturday Dad Played Golf]. Throughout his career, Backus remained an unusually collaborative artist. By the mid-1980s, however, the collective spirit that had sustained him was mostly gone from the art world, replaced by a culture of marketing and self-promotion. In 1993, having focused anew on still photography, Backus discovered the stencil art of Paris. (For the last four years of his life he photographed pochoirs, evoking the dissident, the ecstatic, and the collaborative aspects of art.

He died on November 21, 1996, in New York City, of heart failure.

Pierce Rafferty + Lynn Phillips


In "Ambush in the Streets," Jules Backus' photographs capture cardboard templates sabotaging Parisian stone. The assembly-line creation of ephemera by disposable stencils is a systematic form of self-expression that transforms the hand into a press.

The stencil is a plan looking for a place and the history of stenciling is a story of activists and artists applying this utilitarian process to their own causes and communities. Stencils have been sliced from dried banana leaf to decorate bark cloth; cut from leather to spread the Buddha's image throughout the Far East; carved from wood to ornament religious sanctuaries; hand-cut from paper to decorate title pages and reproduce illustrations; mass-produced in plastic to teach children how to write; painted beneath hockey rinks to emblazon a team's logotype; and, most recently, distributed through the internet by stencil activists eager to have their slogans downloaded and sprayed or sponged on neighborhoods across the globe.

Artisans and soldiers from ancient times to the present have discovered that simple geometric, silhouetted and linear forms have a structure compatible with the process and style of stenciling. Early spiral forms common to Greek and Roman decorative art are one of the easiest forms to stencil, as is the spiral's kin, the rectilinear "swastika" (Sanskrit for Rwell-being) whose long decorative history is overshadowed by its appropriation by the Nazis. Military units used the stencil to make simple, temporary signs and instructions in the field.

What was once a practical process increasingly became fashionable in typefaces. Professional designers crafted stencil-like letter forms to convey either a vernacular sensibility or a utilitarian aesthetic. At the turn of the century, the Parisian type foundry Deberny & Peignot commissioned Georges Auriol to design a display typeface with a stencil/brush style that reflected the Art Nouveau period. The more vernacular stencil typeface, Tea-chest, designed in 1936, appeared as though it were lifted directly from a packaging label. In that same year, Harper's Bazaar found it chic to use a stencilled logo. Josef Albers' Kombinationsschrift alphabets were a more utilitarian set of typefaces, consisting of ten basic permutations of the circle and the rectangle. Albers 1 and 2 could form any letter or number and were ideal for stenciling.

The ease and style of stenciling was at its height during the Art Deco era in France, where both spare and ornamental forms pervaded books and advertising art. In the early 1920s and '30s French publishers, influenced by Japanese printed textiles, used stenciling to produce color separations for book illustrations. Their technique was similar in form to the hand-coloring common in England a hundred years earlier, but differed in its methodical efforts to reproduce the tones of an image. Craftsmen reproducing works by Fauvist painters such as Derain cut separate stencils for every tint. Stenciled reproductions of Picasso's designs for the Ballet RuPablo, 1920, are among the more notable examples of fine printing during this era. As printing technology developed, however, the art and craft of stenciling in book design declined.

Stencil a rose on a dining room floor and contribute to a long-standing folk tradition, perfected by those unable to afford fine carpets. Stencil the same rose on a neighborhood cross-walk and you have an encounter reminiscent of what the Situationists would describe as "gestures contained in a transitory decor." The economy of the method philosophically unites decorative stenciling on bare floors during the 1800s and slogans on sidewalks in the 1990s. But throughout history, the stencil has served authority equally well, from Theodoric, the illiterate king of the Ostrogoths (454-A.D 526), who used a stencil of gold ingot to sign his name, to the official "Defense d'Afficher" (Post No Bills) stenciled throughout Paris today.

Most contemporary stenciling shares an affinity with handbill, bumper sticker and mail art ephemera as efficient methods of dissemination, but the site-specific nature of stenciling distinguishes it from its printed kin, appearing more intrusive than the random distribution of handbills. Today, stencil activists can custom order laser-cut stencils through the web. A group in Baltimore, the Cultural Cryptanalysts Collective (CCC), confers recognition on local urban art with a stencil that reads, "This Place Designated a Museum." The CCC makes this stencil available for downloading, encouraging activists to distinguish local sites in their communities.

The CCC's stencil is a grassroots acknowledgment of a neighborhood inspiration. A photographer can call attention to marginalised expression without leaving a mark. In "Ambush in the Streets," Jules Backus' photographs haved saved at least some of the stenciled art that multiplies to combat its inevitable decay.

Lawrence Mirsky, Director
Herb Lubalin Study Center
of Design and Typography
The Cooper Union

Ercoli, Giuliano. Art Deco Prints. New York : Rizzoli, 1989.

Heller, Steven and Louise Fili. French Modern : Art Deco Graphic Design. San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 1997.

Knapp, Ken. Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Streets, 1981.

Walsh, Peter, "Mapping Social and Cultural Space: the Ramifications of the Street Stencil," [ allery/walsh1.html], 1996

Western Cell Division, "On the Street - Off the Street" [], July 1996.

Waring, Janet. Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture. W.R. Scott: New York, 1937

Wilson, Eva. 8,000 years of Ornament : An Illustrated Handbook of Motifs. New York : H.N. Abrams, 1994.

Director   Lawrence Mirsky

Curators   Mary Peacock + Brian Drolet
Djamilla Cochran,
Associate Curator

Designers   Rob Reed, Web Site Design

Brett Snyder, Panel Design

Installation Assistants  
Alex Ardenas
Adam Bayer
Christine Beardsell
Natalia Griffith
Leonard Posso
Petter Ringbom
location   The Herb Lubalin Study Center
of Design and Typography
Cooper Union School of Art
Foundation Building
Second Floor
Third Avenue at 7th Street
tel: 212.353.4214
gallery hours   Monday - Friday, 12 - 7pm
Saturday, 12 - 5pm
Closed Sundays & Holidays