The Pierre & Gilles duet is topping the bill at the Musée d’Ixelles. For more than 40 years, with unwavering delight, audacity and empathy, the two visual artists have been showing us what it means to be human. The Pierre & Gilles Clair-obscur retrospective is designed to demonstrate their singularity while underscoring their steadfast course, yet more diversified than people may think. It highlights the complexity of such ‘kitsch’ art, the alchemy between a spirit from the eighties and a social and political dimension.
Pierre (1950) is a native of La Roche-Sur-Yon and Gilles (1953) was born in Le Havre. Ever since 1976, they’ve managed to convey opposites in a work between painting and photography. One meeting was all it took for them to find their path in love and art. Shown on the upper floor of the museum, the Grimaces, a series of portraits mounted together, is their first joint work. In it, Pierre & Gilles portrayed close relations, whether unknown or famous, against life-size flamboyant backgrounds that they built in their studio. These sophisticated decors are made from scratch using simple materials and ingenious DIY tricks. Once Pierre’s photograph has been printed on canvas, Gilles begins the painstaking painting work. The glamourous retouching operation imbues the picture with an old-fashioned atmosphere, similar to old postcards.
Upstairs, the exhibition is organised chronologically. It starts with three splendid portraits projecting their aura over the staircase: Isabelle Hupert, Stromae and Jean-Paul Gaultier, heroes of our society. The worlds of cinema, vocal artists and fashion are the three pillars of popular culture and the inspiration behind the exhibition. On the ground floor, the portraits are arranged in such a way as to make the best possible use of the available space, offering a sumptuous stage to Ganymède or Narcisse, with their idealized, perfect body in the neoclassical tradition. The hall’s side alcoves have become chapels featuring sets of works arranged around a theme. Pierre & Gilles magnify and glorify their characters, in a profusion of portraits and self-portraits, some luminous and others darker like Marilyn Manson’s portrait in La Chanson de la mort.
All works have in common a search for esthetics, founded on a constant duality. The adoration of the body and the extolment of beauty seem to be the reference in this exhibition. Is Gilles, when he paints the pictures, hoping to preserve his models from the ravages of time? Their ubiquitous focus on images is very contemporary. The staging is compelling and the wealth of visual clues draws its inspiration sometimes from popular culture, other times from classical and literary sources. According to exhibition curator Sophie Duplaix, the subjects are mostly ambivalent and licentious, with frequent erotic references in an avowed desire to change mindsets and show all the dimensions of the Human, all the gradations, from the brightest to the darkest, from fun to duty. Without the weight of taboos but not without a nice touch of humour and many mischievous double-entendres. Social protest and images often march to the same tune. This Mariage pour tous, for instance, triggered a great many debates. By all accounts, two is a stronger number when it comes to acting with such audacity and daring to question such issues. A duo is necessary to believe in a better world and in the respect of individual rights and differences. If this is the beautiful message of this exhibition, Pierre & Gilles would be more efficient if they conveyed it using more subtle and more modern iconography. The images they show us were fashionable thirty years ago. But today?
Pierre & Gilles
71 rue Jean Van Volsem
Until 14 mai
Tuesdays – Sundays, from 9:30h to 17:00h