Laugh Now But One Day We’ll Be in Charge contains one of the most celebrated motifs used by the enigmatic British artist known as Banksy. Rising to fame in the 1990s, the much-lauded and mischievous instigator uses biting imagery—including his iconic chimpanzees—to create political and social commentary in his signature stenciled form. The present work is a prime example of Banksy’s mixture of wry wit and biting criticism on contemporary society. Powerful for its ability to exist in the street and gallery simultaneously, Banksy’s work consistently proves that he is inspired by the very pulse of modern life. “…he is making art that penetrates the public consciousness; art that is in the world, not detached from it; art that raises questions that need an airing… Banksy makes art that, as Hamlet said, holds ‘…the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’” (W. Gompertz,” BBC News, October 13, 2018). The artist’s ability of cutting to the heart of contemporary issues for decades has made him a household name, even while his true identity remains unknown.
As soon as I cut my first stencil, I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”
On a cream background, three identical chimpanzees wearing sandwich boards display the work’s title. Using only black and white spray paint, Banksy creates a bold image that contains more than it initially may suggest. The crisp lines of the stencil are softened at times by overspray, and the bottom edge of the composition is awash with dripping paint that falls unevenly toward the lower portion. The apes themselves, their eyes hidden in the simplified rendering of cut-out cardboard typical of the artist, appear dejected or downtrodden. They hunch under the weight of their placards and suggest a despondency that many in the workforce have felt. Banksy’s subjects often quip at ideas of social unrest and give form to cultural ideas prevalent in anti-establishment literature. Connecting his working methods to his subject matter, the artist noted, “As soon as I cut my first stencil, I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars” (Banksy, quoted by Tristan Manco, Stencil Graffiti, London, 2002, p. 76). The apes act as stand-ins for the working class; their repetitive signage is a warning for those who might take advantage of laborers or the victims of unchecked capitalism.
Laugh Now… uses a motif that entered Banksy’s visual vocabulary in 2002 as part of a commissioned mural for a nightclub in the English seaside city of Brighton. There, the same chimpanzee seen in the present work was repeated ten times over the length of eighteen feet. The present trio of apes was created the same year as the wall painting and signals the beginning of one of the artist’s most-used subjects. Along with the rat, the chimpanzee has become a favorite in the painter’s diverse iconography. Manipulating these images into easily discernible messages, Banksy can take something as ludicrous as a group of marching chimps and turn it into a pointed satirical statement. Lauren Collins noted in The New Yorker that: “[...] Banksy is able to achieve a meticulous level of detail. His aesthetic is clean and instantly readable-broad social cartooning rendered with the graphic bang of an indie concert poster" (L. Collins, “Banksy Was Here,” The New Yorker, May 14, 2007). Harnessing the aesthetic of street art and the impact of guerilla advertisement, the artist is able to combine the two in a concerted effort to present a poignant message with maximum force.
You might not agree with him, but at least he is making art that penetrates the public consciousness; art that is in the world, not detached from it; art that raises questions that need an airing… Banksy makes art that, as Hamlet said, holds ‘…the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
Before becoming the world-renowned artist that he is today, Banksy was a teenage graffiti artist in Bristol. The idea to trade in freehand painting for stencils came to him one night as he was running from the local police after they caught him marking up a building. Giving them the slip, he hid under a garbage truck and waited for the chance to escape. “As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks,” he reminisced, “I realised I had to cut my painting time in half or give it up altogether. I was staring straight up at the stencilled plate on the bottom of the fuel tank when I realised I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high” (Banksy,Wall and Piece, London 2005, p. 13). By pre-cutting his stencils ahead of time, Banksy was able to spend more time crafting the ideas they presented and combine that with a quick deployment when he was ready to paint. Not only did this help him logistically, but it also allowed for a level of visual sophistication that might take much more time without his innovative use of the stencil. The results of this epiphany are on full display around the world.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).