Where French kitsch meets art, Pierre and Gilles are a royal couple. John Kohut visits them to learn how one plus one makes ... one.
One might expect Pierre and Gilles, partners for nearly three decades in life, love and art, to be as flamboyant as the images in their painted photographs, and as extroverted as their visual portfolio suggests.
After all, they have photographed practically all the icons of our time - from Catherine Deneuve to Madonna. The rest of their subjects have been models and friends - mainly gorgeous men, whom the couple have made to look even more surreally beautiful with the help of vibrant, painted colours, fantasy backgrounds, brilliant lighting and airbrushing.
Certainly, they have cause to be over-the-top.
Their in-your-face, erotic painted photographs have been embraced not only in the commercial world, but also in the rarefied atmospheres of museums and galleries from New York to Tokyo, institutions that obviously disagree with some of the critics who write off their work as glitter and kitsch. So it's a bit surprising to find that Pierre and Gilles are shy and unassuming rather than extroverted and arrogant, that they prefer to stay home rather than work the party circuit that is so readily accessible owing to their status as one of the art world's hippest couples.
They reside in the sleepy suburb of Pre-Saint-Gervais, a world away from the hip Bastille area of Paris. Neighbours with strollers stop and chat on the tranquil, leafy streets and there are few shops around. Yet you know something unusual is about to unfold in the midst of Parisian suburbia when you get to the artists' door, on which is painted a cherubic figure urinating. Below is their signature: pierre and gilles, the two names, all in small letters, straddling a big valentine heart.
Dressed in T-shirts and jeans, with tattoos including a Chinese goddess and 'amour' decorating their arms, Pierre and Gilles answer the door. The huge apartment-cum-studio, spread over three floors, is so packed with art, kitschy souvenirs from all over the world, photos and paintings that it is like walking into someone's dream. 'Everyone thinks we live life in the large,' says Gilles, sitting back on an elaborately carved chair, part of a set acquired from Laos, explaining why the couple moved years ago from Paris. 'But that's a false impression. Yes, we know everyone. But by nature we're timid.'
Gilles does most of the talking, constantly looking at Pierre, who bends forward across the table wearing tinted aviator glasses, for affirmation or elaboration. Throughout our conversation, they smoke cigarettes from a single, shared pack. You may not have seen a Pierre and Gilles retrospective - though they have long been superstars in Japan, they have never exhibited in Hong Kong or mainland China, as much as they would love the opportunity. It had been proposed to show their work at Le French May Art Festival, but the idea was scrapped owing to lack of sponsorship. But you have probably come across something that gives a flavour of their much copied style - which mixes the camp and the surreal with touches of melancholy, plays on religious and sexual stereotypes, and often makes the already beautiful achingly more so.
For instance, when Jean Paul Gaultier launched an advertisement for his Le Male fragrance, Pierre and Gilles ran into friends who congratulated them on the campaign. 'Everyone thought we had done it,' says Gilles. In fact, they had nothing to do with the campaign.
Pierre and Gilles copycat works can be spotted in France. Some websites devoted to Pierre and Gilles include art works that they did not do, the artists say. In Thailand, Pierre and Gilles have seen T-shirts with prints of their work, alongside copies of Modiglianis and Picassos - exalted company in which Pierre and Gilles are pleasantly amused to find themselves. The style for which they are known was created 'by chance', Gilles says. When the two first met in 1976 at a party hosted by fashion designer Kenzo, Pierre was a photographer shooting for magazines like Rock & Folk and Facade, while Gilles was an art teacher.
They soon became lovers, but worked separately in their respective domains. About a year into their relationship, Pierre told Gilles that he was not happy with the colours in one of his photo projects. Gilles amplified the vibrancy of the colours with paint.
'We were satisfied, super-satisfied from the first time we worked together. We felt we had found something,' says Gilles. Others thought so, too. Soon they were doing invitation cards for fashion designer Thierry Mugler, covers for record albums and photos for big-name magazines like Marie Claire and Playboy, as well as gay publications.
The two became and still are largely inseparable, which is one of the reasons their surnames - Commoy and Blanchard respectively, are scarcely used. 'It's not us who invented Pierre and Gilles,' Gilles says. 'When we went out, people would say: 'Oh look, there's Pierre and Gilles.'' At first some of the journals they worked for balked at accrediting their photos to surname-less artists. 'It bothered people because it was two guys, and well, people didn't sign their works like that. But we imposed it upon them. It's our signature.'
Pierre and Gilles conceive projects together. The former takes charge of lighting and photography, the latter manages props and later paints the photos, a process that alone takes four to 10 days. Often they make the costumes and do the make-up and hair of their subjects themselves. It is a painstaking, meticulous procedure, one that they say cannot be reproduced by computer graphics. In an average year, the artists produce no more than about two dozen works. Some of their pieces have taken years to plan; after coming up with an idea, they need time to find the model capable of incarnating it.
Their subjects have included many women, straight and gay couples, albeit with what Gilles calls a personal point of view. Key influences and themes in their work have been the cinema, stars, religion, visual culture - images they began to collect as children, copying, cutting and pasting them into albums.
Subjects of their oeuvre have included superstars, a green-faced Mick Jagger; rock legend Iggy Pop; singer Kylie Minogue dressed in a nun's habit sitting side-saddle on a merry-go-round pony; model Claudia Schiffer as Venus; porn star Jeff Stryker with devil's horns and surrounded by toy rabbits; film actor Rupert Everett, chained and lying on a beach of star fish. Sometimes Pierre and Gilles approach the famous. Others, such as French actress Catherine Deneuve and Madonna, have sought out the artists.
Asia, their favourite destination in a life full of travel, figures prominently in their collection. Some critics say the texture of some of the work recalls the sort of calendar or poster one might find in an Indian mum-and-pop store. Thus, we find singer Nina Hagen posing as the goddess Kali, her tongue sticking out. There is a series on Thai boxers, youths from the Mekong, a tattooed Buddhist monk and a favourite Japanese model as the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian.
'We've been attracted to Asia, more than other parts of the world, because of the smiles, the legends, culture and cinema,' says Gilles. Though they have never set foot in China, they are fans of Chinese cinema, particularly Taiwanese director Ho Hsiao-hsien, and Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang's Lan Yu.
Pierre and Gilles present their subjects as saints, soldiers, sailors, athletes, Greek gods - with butterfly wings, bound in ropes and chains, or Christ-like attached to a cross or with a crown of thorns. Many of the photos are sexually charged. Full frontal nudity is common. Occasionally the subjects are inanimate objects, like dolls: a luminous Hello Kitty amid valentine bubbles; two plastic Ken-types embracing in a pool; teddy bears in sun-glasses.
The pair make no apologies for their attachment to kitsch and their penchant for collecting things from the world's bazaars. In pop culture, 'one sees all the culture of a country, its products, the museums and art that might lie behind a market', Gilles says.
'We didn't think our work corresponded to what was in galleries of art in the 1970s, from the conceptual or abstract point of view,' says Gilles. 'We didn't think our work had a place in art. At first we didn't want to talk about death, or weighty things. There are many artists who talk about the sad life. We were a bit opposed to that.'
To their surprise, it was not long before Pierre and Gilles found themselves being invited to show their works in museums and galleries, giving them recognition as bona fide artists.
Their first exhibition was at the Gallerie Texbraun in Paris in 1983. Since then their works have been exhibited throughout Europe, Japan and the United States, culminating in major retrospectives at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco, in 2001.
Over the years, their photography has developed a more sombre aspect, moving from the psychedelic images of the 1970s and early 1980s into works of surreal light and shadowy backdrops. Even if the models continue to be nothing short of stunning, their looks become melancholy. Intimations of mortality surround them.
Pierre and Gilles' latest series, Interior Exile, represents a new departure. Crisp lines and Technicolor have given way to fluid images distorted and reflected as in a house of mirrors, sometimes to the point of sheer abstraction. We see only the colours of the flesh, light and darkness. Rather than being idealised, the figures verge on the grotesque. Instead of looking straight at us, as in most of their earlier works, the images draw us into a shadowy world of the mind.
This more melancholic aspect has come with experience and age. Even if the two artists seem to enjoy a gilt-edged life, they have not been untouched by the suffering around them. 'In the 1980s we lived through Aids, drugs. Our work changed,' says Gilles. 'We saw a friend die at age 30. That's not normal. It's revolting.'
In the early days, Pierre and Gilles were loath to sell their painted photos. That is no longer the case. Their exclusive representative, the Galerie Jerome Noirmont in Paris, says a Pierre and Gilles work sells from US$20,000 to US$100,000.
Now in their 50's (they do not give out their exact ages), Pierre and Gilles prefer quieter leisure pursuits like going to the gym, walks, the cinema and spending time with friends, as well as travel. 'But mainly, we like to work at home. It's pleasant and calm,' Gilles says.
Their photos are shot in their basement studio. A large photo of a Russian sailor (fully clad) lies on the floor, waiting for Gilles to apply his paint and glazes. On an easel is a naked Adonis, which Gilles has taken out of storage to rework. In one corner stands a collection of white skeletons. There is a wall full of props stored in bubble gum-pink paper boxes, each labelled: Thai jewels, plastic flowers, Japanese flowers, transparent masks, autumn plants, feathers, swans and so on.
Critics may still debate whether Pierre and Gilles are indeed artists or purveyors of kitsch. It is a question that does not seem to occupy the pair's thoughts which, even as they become more pensive about life's meaning, are permeated with a quest for joy and beauty.
'Beauty,' says Gilles, 'is to be surprised by something. It gives pleasure - a pleasure that forces people to look.'
Exhibitions of works of Pierre and Gilles are scheduled for the Centre of Photography, Seoul, South Korea, April 1-May 4, 2004; and for the Museum of Modern Art, Singapore, May/June 2004.