Pierre et Gilles

Robert Miller Gallery
524 West 26th Street, Chelsea
May 14 through June 28, 2003

Pierre et Gilles are back in town to challenge our provincial attitudes, charm us with their showmanship, and provide an illicit frisson for good measure.    Fans will recognize the glossily suffocating kitsch these artists traffic in, though not necessarily from their pieces; déjà vu springs from the appropriation of their style by others, now ubiquitously trumpeted in magazines and billboards.  Turnabout is fair play—as it happens, that’s how Pierre et Gilles got their start.

The staid, loft-like Robert Miller Gallery has been transformed by the riot of color and imagery.  None of what’s on display is accident.  These artists supervise everything from the sketching of ideas to the elaborate creation of costumes, sets and lighting.  After Pierre takes the photos, Gilles uses layers of paint and glaze to achieve the hallmark effects, images that glisten as if immersed in a vat of tears.  Their visual worlds reference everything from mythology and pop culture to religious iconography—the result are highly atmospheric works infused with luridness, slickness and a whimsy that draws the viewer like a magnet.

These techniques especially serve to enhance the blatant and subtle ways in which the artists explore sex.  Un Dimanche Apres-Midi depicts a lad in rugby regalia.  Soiled from head to toe, he’s plopped in a field of grass, fluffy crocuses and pink peonies under a stunning backdrop of sky and clouds.  The look on his face says it all—rather than smile, his lips curl with sexual suggestion, and anyone who’s seen a skin magazine will recognize his gaze as a big come-on.  Nearby, Le Petit Boxer is an out-and-out love letter to a black youth whose matte-mahogany skin gleams against a backdrop of worker housing and a bright sky of blue.  Shirtless, his eyes and teeth gleam back at the viewer in triumph, a Colossus rising above the circumstances of his place in the world.  How intriguing that the artists kill so many birds in a single image: here we get sociological commentary, the myth of the black buck and a fetishized rendering of adolescent youth.

In L’esclave, the subject is a nude Adonis, but overt sexuality is eschewed in favor of something more mysterious.  With the beauty of a frescoed border setting off a potently red weathered backdrop, this boy’s mordant supplication recalls a work by Caravaggio.  His gaze follows a shadow, implying that he’s on display for the benefit of this spectral observer, not us.  In a corner replete with the biblical and the mythic, there isLe Jardin des Songs, in which a Narcissus-like figure contemplates his reflection in what appears to be a secluded lagoon.  Seated on, and surrounded by rocks and crags that suggest Celtic totems, a closer look reveals that some of the monoliths are in the shape of penises.  Despite these almost satiric (or satyric) details, the evocation of the otherworldly is so strong that the viewer might be inclined to replace their drier imagistic memories of the myth for this version.  Here, much of the strangeness derives from the use of contrast.  The background’s use of frigid blue encourages the viewer to imagine that rather than heat, the work’s shrouding mist emanates from dry ice.  The flushed skin tones of this complacent nude only enhances the unsettling atmosphere.

A dark undercurrent runs through the candy-coated veneer.  The boys are beautiful, but what makes them matter is a varied sense of tragedy: Cain & Abel shows two men in waist-covering bunting backed by trees that sprout Easter lilies, while the poignant Le Mur Blanc depicts a man covered from head to foot with what initially appears to be bloody wounds.  A closer examination reveals that they are tomatoes, but the reds are so ghastly that it’s the brutality, rather than the joke, that lingers.  Le Supplice D’ixion gives us a modern Prometheus bound to a wheel in chains.  Again, the subject’s face contradicts the apparent bodily torture, gazing back at the viewer yieldingly, longingly.

That gaze radiates a provocation equal to the miles of flesh on view.  More often than not, what stares back (or what we observe) is something pliant and vulnerable that seems to say I relinquish control, a sure indication that the men in these portraits have usurped the role of women in the depiction of the nude.  That male gaze is often decidedly feminine: beckoning and coquettish, with no more purpose than to be adored.

Women, by the way, do have a place in this work.  Confined to one of the gallery’s alcoves, these portraits are loaded with the cotton candy colors and ornate framing that are de rigueur in the world of Pierre et Gilles.  Their female subjects are objects of burlesque, guised as vampires and saints, or in the case of Chi Chi, a man (the porn producer Chi Chi LaRue) in drag painted to look like another man in drag: the late John Waters star, Divine.   That tattooed lady (who by way, resembles the late musical comedy star Mary Martin) staring into a mirror to meet our gaze, is a creature of the circus, as is the bleach blonde trans party girl Amanda Lepore whose breast and lips bulge with silicone.  The sympathy lavished on the male subjects gets jettisoned in favor of department store mannequins, and that might well be the point.  After all, isn’t their function as display the assumed role of women in society?  But Pierre et Gilles’ women balk at fulfilling male fantasy; the gaze they return might as well be an eye roll, a self-awareness meant to cue that what’s being sold is a notion of femininity.

The surprise, and sticky wicket for some viewers, is a remarkable series of self-portraits.   In their hugely dioramic canvases, the viewer is served a sexual Hades all the more disturbing for its use of abstraction.  Through the use of mirrors, the artists revel in the distortion of the human form and its parts. The effect is that of a brazenly graphic funhouse—lest there’s any doubt, that is an erect, glistening penis jutting across one canvas’ lower right hand corner.  Tricks of reflection may either multiply the male organ by four, or stretch it in such a way that for a moment the viewer isn’t sure what it sees.

In these works, the artists exploit the sculptural aspects of the human body, morphing their curves with mirrors and lighting into unearthly images.  As always, lustrous flesh radiates light from within—against backgrounds that go from brown to black, the skin glows like cauldrons in the night as shapes evoke totems, caverns, amoebas, and alien beings.  Indeed, the words “alien” and “sex” have their greatest union here, for with the sight of split heads, stretched tattoos on buttocks, hairy feet and legs that melt and sway, they’ve managed to create a bacchanal at the end of the world.  As these artists revel in this Middle American fever dream of what constitutes sex between men, their glee is palpable.

In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the author invites the reader to choose a traditional female nude–then imagine it as a male.  He referred to the reassessment that the typical viewer would experience as a type of violence.  More and more, such violations continue to permeate the culture, typically in ads for everything from underwear to perfume.  Men are taking their place alongside women as objects of adornment and the focus of desire.  Despite their obvious homage to pop culture, the works on display at the Robert Miller Gallery go a step further by challenging our notions of sexuality and desire.  As gender fluidity continues its assault on society and our comfort zone, the images of Pierre et Gilles are welcome.   By chronicling this phenomenon, they reveal themselves to be more than man enough for the task.