The paper-bound legacy of Pierre et Gilles
“It’s one of those things that gets better with time. These books are passed between artists as gifts, and getting one from someone you look up to means that you’ve really made it.” Having been shown their work on a somewhat peculiar date with a somewhat immodest poet/artist/editor person, my introduction to the couple and surrealist photography duo known as Pierre et Gilles was loaded to say the least. He ended up using the book in our conversation as a strategic means to an end, one that I sort of fell for, before succumbing to the moat of inebriation and overall failure to hoist myself back onto the drawbridge. With regret, I must inform that my self-important and multifaceted fantasy man is no longer in the picture. Despite that night’s tile placement in the collective mosaic of uneasy semi-romantic encounters, however, its memory holds a lot of water for me — it served as a keystone exposure to really great queer art. The kind that needs to be experienced in person, on a page.
Pierre Comoy and Gilles Blanchard are well into their fifth decade of doing what they do: marrying fashion photography, portraiture, painting and a sensibility steeped heavily in camp and magical realism to build worlds, concepts taken to the highest extreme, befitting whoever is in front of the camera. They have several photo books, the most recent of which celebrates their 40th anniversary and compiles some of the work they are most well known for. Their several magazine covers include Out, Numero and Fucking Young!. They’ve worked with models, muses, artists, friends and larger than life figures (a particular favorite is an over-blossomed vignette of Marilyn Manson and Dita von Teese), all while manipulating each image to bend in line with their overarching viewpoint.
Pierre et Gilles create drama. They are immersive. They are jouissance distilled in an image, in a single expression that is at once complicated and crystal clear, then cast throughout like speckled debris. They democratize the Venus, an art historical trope that positions the depicted figure as an aesthetic celebration, in such a way that women are exalted and men become objects of desire. They are feminized. Hairy-chested masculinity is given its day in the sun, make no mistake, but the men in the photographs are not men in the traditional sense. Strength and gravitas are undermined by their placement on a dinner tray, while the feminine looks you in the eye, pulling you through the fourth wall as though the barrier is nothing but a flimsy partition. And then there’s the ambiguous soup of flesh that resides somewhere in between those two poles. Religious iconography, phallic weaponry, political affiliations, Greek mythology and other cultural cliches are mobilized to subvert the more implicit markers of identity. They give breathtaking scenes, each threaded with teases and a touch of humour, creating a space for the viewer to look into themselves without raising the stakes to those of life and death. It can be fun to look at, or it can be something else.
It doesn’t quite come alive through a computer screen. Not like it does in print. Even as a reproduction of the original work, most of which are expanded photographs painted over to achieve their full effect, the textural interplay, the vividness of some elements contrasting with the smooth grain of film, make sense. The feeling of immediacy that comes with holding a bound photo book or a magazine with nice, thick paper cannot be replicated, nor can the experience of being able to flip through one and get completely lost in it — coming back up for air with a perfectly coherent understanding of what the artists and everyone involved in its publication meant to communicate, even if that understanding is unique to you.
Print media has been “dying” for a long time, but in that death, or at least relegation to niche markets, there is a great deal of personal value placed on what we choose to fill our shelves with. In the information age and the apparent mass exodus of trees, the only things we can afford to keep around are those that move us, challenge us and inspire us to create and be better people. Pierre et Gilles, to me, is joy. Their work represents the ability to weave through the world with all of its weight and create something worth looking at. If homoerotic portraits of communists adorned with wreaths of red roses and crystal tears aren’t your thing, OK. I hear that. And yet the point remains. Regardless of what ill-fated endeavors lead to its discovery, when something that carries real weight makes itself known, it’s important to hold on to it.