RETNA - Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches Hong Kong Thursday, May 25, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Standing in front of He’s A Criminal No Different From Me. One Could Argue I Could Be Painted With The Same Brush, we embark on a journey through the enigmatic and captivating cosmos of RETNA, a Los Angeles-based artist who has forged a unique visual language that transcends cultural, linguistic, and temporal boundaries. Born Marquis Lewis in 1979, RETNA emerged from the crucible of graffiti and street art to become a creative that defies convention, and has blazed an inimitable trail through the world of contemporary art.

    One of the most salient features of RETNA's work is the development of his distinctive script. Drawing upon an extensive range of sources that borrows elements from various ancient and contemporary writing systems, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arabic, Hebrew, and even Blackletter typography, RETNA has created a visual language that transcends the traditional barriers of street art. This script, at once familiar and eternal, serves as a conduit for engaging with broader themes of identity, culture, and history. The multi-layered complexity of RETNA's work, both conceptually and formally, has garnered the attention of curators, collectors, and critics alike, facilitating his ascendance into the fine art world.



      Detail from Sarcophagus of Ankhnesneferibre, circa 530 BC
    British Museum, London


    The significance of RETNA's work lies not only in its aesthetic appeal but also in its ability to provoke reflection and dialogue. By blending together various scripts and cultural references, RETNA invites viewers to ponder the complex interplay of identity, language, and power. His art becomes a site of exploration and discovery, where personal narratives and broader socio-political issues intersect.



    A Visual Lexicon Bridging Time and Culture

    At the heart of RETNA's artistic practice lies his innovative script, a confluence of diverse scripts from various epochs and cultures. By amalgamating these distinct systems, RETNA creates an artistic vernacular that transcends linguistic boundaries, forging a visual dialogue that speaks to the universality of human experience. This synthesis of disparate cultural elements not only highlights the fluidity and malleability of identity but also challenges the hegemony of dominant power systems. In doing so, RETNA's work underscores the intrinsic power dynamics embedded within language, exposing the ways in which language can both empower and disenfranchise certain voices and narratives.
    The title of the work, He's A Criminal No Different From Me. One Could Argue I Could Be Painted With The Same Brush encapsulates a key aspect of RETNA's artistic practice – the exploration of marginalisation. Its words resonate with RETNA's own journey, as it underscores the idea that artists who emerge from the world of street art are often stigmatised and labelled as ‘criminals’ due to the illicit nature of their work. However, the phrase also challenges this preconceived notion by suggesting that the distinctions between ‘criminals’ and other individuals may be arbitrary or superficial, thereby questioning the power dynamics and societal structures that perpetuate these categorisation. 
    RETNA's oeuvre embodies the intricate nexus of identity, language, and power, offering a fertile ground for examining the ways in which these elements interact within contemporary art. Through his unique visual language, RETNA weaves a complex tapestry that explores the fluidity and multiplicity of identity, while simultaneously challenging the conventions and hierarchies of linguistic systems. In doing so, his work invites comparisons with that of another contemporary champion, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose art is similarly composed by a cacophony of words, symbols, and images that confront the viewer with the intersection of personal narratives and broader socio-political issues. Both artists employ language as a tool for subversion, challenging the established hierarchies and conventions that govern artistic expression and communication.
    Through his distinctive style, incorporating elements of graffiti, Neo-Expressionism, and primitivism, Basquiat staged a damning critique the socio-political structures that have historically marginalised Black voices and experiences. Flexible, also offered in our Disruptors sale (Lot 352), is a shining example of this, and cements the unison between the two disruptors.



    Lot 352, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flexible, 1984/2016
    Phillips Hong Kong Disruptors Sale, 25 May 2023
    Estimate: HKD450,000 - 650,000



    Dialogue through Pigment and Concrete

    Likewise, RETNA followed in Basquiat’s footsteps (or rather his aerosol sprays) by cutting his teeth on the streets of an American metropolis. His artistic journey began in the Los Angeles graffiti scene of the 1990s, where he honed his craft and developed his signature style. This urban backdrop has left an indelible mark on his work, with its bold lines, vibrant colours, and energetic compositions that seem to reverberate with the pulse of the city.
    The transition of RETNA from the realm of street art to the distinguished domain of fine art is a testament to the artist's ability to synthesise disparate influences and contexts into a singular, coherent vision. This metamorphosis exemplifies the fluidity and adaptability of contemporary artistic practices while providing an opportunity to critically examine the porous boundaries between these seemingly distinct spheres.
    The artist’s serves as a testament to the transformative power of art in redefining and renegotiating individual and collective identities. His murals and installations are not only visually arresting but also imbued with an inherent sense of agency, asserting their presence within the urban landscape, something that he has addressed first hand: ‘It is important to have art in the streets as a cultural fabric that is woven into the city for the upliftment of civic pride’i. This aspect of RETNA's practice resonates with Basquiat's engagement with the urban environment as a site of resistance and creative expression. Both artists harness the power of their chosen medium to amplify marginalised voices and narratives, challenging the status quo and advocating for a more inclusive and equitable discourse within the art world.
    Another crucial factor in RETNA's transition has been the artist's ability to adapt and expand his practice into new mediums and formats. While his early works were primarily executed on the walls of Los Angeles, RETNA has since embraced a diverse array of materials and surfaces, including canvas, wood, and metal. This expansion has enabled him to engage with the rich tradition of painting and sculpture, placing his work in dialogue with the broader art historical canon. By doing so, the artist has effectively recontextualised his oeuvre, elevating it from the ephemeral realm of graffiti to the eternal sphere of fine art.
    This striking evolution is emblematic of a broader shift within the art world, wherein the distinctions between these categories are increasingly blurred. In this context, RETNA's work serves as a prime example of the dynamic interplay between various artistic traditions, mediums, and practices, underscoring the plurality and heterogeneity of contemporary art. By exploring and expanding the boundaries of his practice, RETNA has not only secured his position within the pantheon of fine art but also contributed to a more nuanced understanding of the complex relationship between street art and the wider art historical narrative.



    Collector’s Digest



    • The artist has been the subject of various shows at the likes of: Bakerhouse Gallery, Berlin; MAIA Contemporary, Mexico City; and Alpha 137 Gallery, New York.

    • RETNA has collaborated with brands including Louis Vuitton, Nike, and Chanel; created an album cover for Justin Bieber; and designed sets for a production of Aida at the Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera.




    RETNA talks about his creative process and the dynamic career that's led to collaborations with Justin Bieber, Louis Vuitton, and the Washington National Opera


    i Brittny Gastineau, ‘Fashion in the Streets: An Interview with Artist RETNA’, Haute Living, 2 May 2014, online

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Asia (acquired directly from the artist)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


He's A Criminal No Different From Me. One Could Argue I Could Be Painted With The Same Brush

signed, titled and dated '"He's a Criminal no different from me you can argue u can Paint me W the Same Brush" RETNA 2013.' on the reverse
enamel, acrylic and crystallina on canvas
244 x 182.9 cm. (96 1/8 x 72 in.)
Executed in 2013.

Full Cataloguing

HK$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for HK$762,000

Contact Specialist

Anastasia Salnikoff
Head of Mid-Season Sales
+852 2318 2014

Thomas Perazzi
Head of Watches, Asia
+852 2318 2001

Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches

Hong Kong Auction 25 May 2023