Caravaggio, Liberace, Moliere, Bjork, Prince, Voltaire and even Fabio share one rather notable thing in common. Well, sure… lovely locks (good guess!), but that isn’t quite the crowning glory that I’m referring to. In the infancy of respective career paths, they all chose to liberate themselves from their surname shackles. It’s doubtful that the wild-eyed insistence of a hunchbacked soothsayer motivated that decision. More likely than not, perhaps they just knew, deep down in their bones, that their worldly contributions would stand hand and shoulders above the rest. In cases like theirs, last names are rendered as pointless as a printed telephone book. Among the pantheon of mononymed wonders who have made a revelatory impact upon our visual culture, the opulently lambent, artfully glittery aura of Pierre et Gilles’ creative collaboration makes the Milky Way Galaxy’s chakras look like a puff of vacuum cleaner dust.
Pierre et Gilles enthusiasts are undoubtedly dialed into the exquisite je ne sais quoi of the artistic duo’s decadent portraits but even newbies could easily pick their work out of a very crowded lineup. The illustrative tableaux employed by Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard is, by all rights, the stuff of cultish legend. At this stage in the team’s 40+ year artistic journey, branding their playful, highly stylized images with their eternally coupled first names actually seems unnecessary since they’re so immediately recognizable. Then again, whipped cream isn’t an essential part of one’s recommended daily allowance. Who, however — at the very least of sound body and mind — would willingly sacrifice that guilty pleasure perilously perched atop their quadruple scoop sundae? Fortunately, photographer Pierre and painter Gilles subscribe to the philosophy that more isn’t just more… it’s the very spice of life. With that in mind, Pierre still happily follows the tradition of adorning each of their completed artworks with his hand-scripted first name followed by a heart and his partner’s name.
Pierre et Gilles’ theatrically fantastical cosmos invites the onlooker to experience an impassioned joy ride that is glitzed-up with a whole lotta happy-go-lucky pixie dust. The dizzying exhilaration of first love morphs into torrid infatuation and starry-eyed sanguinity. Not necessarily in the most overt sense, but rather in the underlying feelings and excitement inherent within their visually mellifluous confections. Their luminescent images – awash with colorful kapow, disco ball refractions and cymbal crashes — manage to soften the upside-down reality that we inhabit, making our nagging awareness of it a little less irksome.
Sizzling specimens of the human figure tend to be the focal point of the art collaborators’ enchanting compositions, but there’s far more to those green veg-and-lean protein cultivated physiques than meets the eye. Boom chicka wow wow bods always seem to be juxtaposed against a geyser of visual tah-dahhhh. Endearing, glass-half-full hopes-n-dreams, undeniable sweetness, and joie de vivre are all delightfully interlaced with a truckload of twinkly gloss. Even if Pierre et Gilles’ subjects entered their studio with a horrid case of the uglies, the creative consiglieres would still succeed in elevating them to a transcendently gorgeous god/goddess-like stratosphere.
Commoy and Blanchard’s whimsically painted photographs almost seem to be a tangible representation of their very own mid-20s, love at first sight romance, which morphed into a happily ever after artistic alliance that, to this day, continues to thrive. They are one of those truly rare examples of soulmates who genuinely delight in each other’s company and unique talents all of these years later, never missing an opportunity to acknowledge the joy of their perpetual togetherness. Their ebulliently cinematic approach to creating visuals has always been fueled by love, eternal optimism, an appreciation of diverse forms of beauty and open-minded perspectives of philosophy, spirituality and culture.
In their dreamy universe, the onlooker is insulated from the weighty concerns of real-world society thanks to their masterfully conceived iconography of mythic tales interwoven with a nodding wink here, bedazzled flourishes there, and as much highly saturated color as the laws of physics will allow. Their art is as extravagantly Baroque as it is pedal-to-the-metal Pop. It’s candy-coated kitsch with a soft, gooey, rainbow-tinted center of heart-touching affection. They’ve cranked the FUN FACTOR up to eleven (…point zero zero zero one, because it simply just HAD to be done)! Their visual aesthetic is no single thing, and to dismiss it as such is to do a tremendous disservice to the collaborators responsible for inventing an entirely unique, magically escapist art form.
When Pierre et Gilles first emerged in the late 1970s art scene, augmenting photographs with splashy, hand-applied flourishes wasn’t commonplace. Rarely do artists arrive upon their aesthetic right out of the gates, however, Gilles was already besotted with the light-hearted nature of photo booth-style imagery when he and Pierre first decided to unite their talents. Gilles would commonly dress up larkish shots of friends with stickers and collaged elements, a practice which triggered a creative light-bulb moment within the duo. In 1977, Pierre et Gilles’ very first collaborative image, “Les Grimaces”, was born. Consisting of nine portraits of various friends hamming it up against vibrant backdrops, their surrealistically-smoothed, color-enhanced facial features really made the piece pop.
During the same period, they were hired to create the inaugural cover for Alain Benoist’s Façade magazine. Numerous Pierre et Gilles shots ended up gracing the front of that cult fashion publication, including a blank-looking Andy Warhol sporting a red lipstick-stained kiss on his cheek, a tongue-wagging Mick Jagger and an impeccably mustachioed Salvador Dali. The duo’s portrait of a daze-eyed, seemingly plasticized Iggy Pop, included inside issue number five, was what really helped them to gain artistic traction, however. The proto-punk pioneer, attired in a wildly uncharacteristic white shirt gussied up with Pierre’s black leather tie, was airbrushed into an android-like state that was even more creepily offset by his slightly parted, coral-slicked pucker. Ewwww…but unforgettable, to say the least. Pierre et Gilles’ left-of-center representation of The Stooges vocalist ended up ushering in a wonderfully fruitful era for them. In addition to building their own signature body of work, they were increasingly commissioned to produce fashion layouts, album covers, advertising campaigns and they even directed music videos for Mikado, Lamour and Marc Almond. Since 1983, the pair have regularly exhibited their art in many highly esteemed museums around the world.
From start to finish, each Pierre et Gilles artwork – which takes a minimum of a month to create, sometimes longer — is collaboratively brainstormed and executed by the life partners with the aid of just one studio assistant. Their ‘hands-on’ creative approach is built upon a foundation of artistic integrity and pride of workmanship. While Pierre assumes his natural position behind the lens and Giles behind the brush, their vision for each one-of-a-kind image begins with shared ideas that evolve through discussion and storyboarding into the eventual construction of life-sized sets (one of Gilles’ favorite parts of the creative process). Each set is a reflection of the essence of their subject, whether that individual is a global icon or not. The art team is also intimately involved in the model selection process – generally, the star of their portrait-to-be is a friend of a friend or an intriguing stranger on the street – plus they often decide on costuming and makeup, too. The one responsibility of each muse is to theatrically execute a specific hand-tailored role that is cast by the auteurs themselves.
With their visual direction fully fleshed out, Commoy and Blanchard hunt down bits, baubles, and trinkets that can potentially take on new life as Giles’ decorative photographic backdrops and one-of-a-kind picture frames. With those objets d’art gathered, the artist arranges them in a way that reveals the couple’s photographic tableau vivant. At that point, the lensman takes the reins, masterfully illuminating his subject with tungsten lights to capture myriad shots, paying close attention to how to best accent their features. Pierre sorts through the many images he’s captured in order to identify the winning composition, which is then enlarged and digitally printed onto canvas. Upon handing it off to Giles, the painter transforms it into a scintillating, dream-like realm. Portraits, by their very nature, tend to immortalize the individual captured within. Pierre et Gilles go well below the surface, however, customizing each backdrop in a way that reflects or otherwise draws out the specific élan of each person in front of their lens.
In today’s technologically advanced society, even pre-tweens and their toddler siblings possess the DIY Photoshop skills necessary to click-and-save their way to lickety-split, ‘faux-to’ art domination. Gilles acknowledges the convenience factor of today’s technology – in fact, Pierre only transitioned from silver-based film to digital photography just a few short years ago! Some of the loveliest things in life, however, must be summoned from the deepest corners of one’s creative psyche and coaxed out in due time. That is why Gilles still takes great pride in the artisanal, almost organic nature of the hand-painted and airbrushed acrylic embellishments that he applies to each of Pierre’s portraits.
In addition to drawing creative inspiration from conventional forms of culture such as high art, movies, fashion, and music, Pierre et Gilles rarely miss an opportunity to pay tribute to the natural world. Botanical elements are integral to their artistic alchemy, but then again, so too, is the acknowledgment of spirituality, whether through the representation of divine beings of classical antiquity, Arabian, Buddhist, and Hindu gods/goddesses or Catholic saints. The highly ornate backdrops of India’s religious folk art, as well as the recolored photographs of Moroccan stars, have further impacted the look of their collaborative artworks.
Resplendently radical realms born out of sheer imagination have always put a pep in Pierre et Gilles’ creative step, which easily explains why they have long had great affection for the American underground Pop Art movement of the 1970s. They found Andy Warhol to be particularly relatable, not just because he spearheaded a bold, slick visual aesthetic, but also because he was transparent about his sexuality. The pulpy-glam, unicorn-smoothied homoerotic photos of James Bidgood (aka Les Follies des Hommes), coupled with his unapologetically avant-garde 1971 film Pink Narcissus, further enchanted the young artists, beckoning them to traverse a left-of-center portraiture style.
Despite what some of the more snarky members of the press seem to think, Pierre et Gilles never intended for their art to be perceived as provocative or iconoclastic. In actuality, they’ve worked overtime in an attempt to portray a tolerant and broad-minded vision of the world where all cultures and religions are given proper representation. At the forefront of their creative pursuits, the duo has always championed the belief that humankind is inherently decent. In keeping with their desire to normalize religious, cultural, social and sexual diversity, they intentionally used an Algerian model for their St. Sebastian portrait. They also gave fashion designer/former prostitute Zahia Dehar – also Algerian — a Marie Antoinette makeover. Their 2006 Vive la France portrait, featuring a trio of multi-ethnic footballers with crown jewels on full display, was designed to reflect the cultural melting pot of their beloved country rather than to titillate. The list goes on and on. Chief curator of the Centre Pompidou, Sophie Duplaix, crystalized Commoy and Blanchard’s artistic objectives perfectly, commenting that they are: “…enlightened guardians of universal values than neither ethical considerations nor political discriminations can hamper.”
This applies to Pierre et Gilles’ liberal use of nudity in their portraiture. Historically, the human figure has been revered by artists across all mediums, whether to summon fertility, praise a higher power, or to creatively immortalize the vessel of life. Critics are notorious for claiming that the art duo elevates the male figure on a particularly homoerotic platform. If you pay attention to their wider body of work, however, they clearly do their best to cast an equal opportunity spotlight upon the fairer sex, as well. In fact, physical diversity is as artistically inspiring to them as the unique personalities of their models. Posing au naturel is a choice that rests solely with each subject, and in many cases, Commoy and Blanchard are just as happy dreaming up fancifully lush scenarios for those who prefer to be fully clothed. Sex matters not. Whoever ends up behind their artistic lens becomes anointed with preternatural splendor.
Enjoying something as precious as creative synergy for decades upon decades is as much a rarity as experiencing a love eternal. For Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard, these are the pillars upon which their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the beautification of this plane of existence have been built. With each new sumptuous escapist meditation that they conjure, our world is just a little bit sweeter and a whole lot more stylistically snazzy. Their wonderfully impossible images help the far too serious version of ourselves resurrect the joy of simple pleasures, respect race-less/sex-less beauty and believe that, well, maybe this crazy Pierre et Gilles world is possible. By diving headfirst into their potpourri of evocative painterly reveries, thankfully it really IS.
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