The New York Times

Pierre and Gilles: A Pair of Pop Guerillas Who Flaunt Bad Taste

When Claudia Schiffer posed for them, she became “Venus,” framed by sparkling plastic flowers, two lovely tears running down her porcelain cheeks. The pop singer Nina Hagen metamorphosed, improbably, into a beatific Virgin Mary and, in another image, into a bondage victim, dressed in latex and roped to a kitchen chair. Catherine Deneuve turned into the “White Queen,” floating among clouds in a gown and tiara.

This is the pop-culture paradise of the French artists Pierre and Gilles, who use fashion, religion and the star system to create an idealized universe of their own. Over the next year, that universe is coming to the United States, starting with a retrospective in Manhattan at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Friday through Jan. 21, and then traveling to the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in San Francisco in February.

Pierre and Gilles believe that beauty can be found everywhere, if one is a willing beholder. Refusing to admit the existence of bad taste, they happily embrace mass, even “lowbrow” culture: variety shows, glitzy religious iconography, Indian B movies. At home, they leave their television on 24 hours a day. In their work, they manipulate reality using the saccharine artifice of Technicolor blue skies, haloes of light and models as perfect as deities, with airbrush-smooth skin and strangely peaceful expressions. “It’s a cruel world,” says Gilles, “so we like to show things that are gentle and pretty.”

Including, it seems, the artists themselves; in their early 40’s, they are both delicately good looking and endearingly shy. Pierre is small, dark and angular; Gilles slightly taller, blond and baby-faced. Tattoos peek out from under their T-shirts, and Pierre wears the tattoo of a tear under his left eye. For 25 years they have been known by their first names.

When the two met at a party in Paris in 1976, Pierre was a photographer of glamour portraits for magazines and Gilles was teaching art. They fell in love, then started working together almost by chance. Pierre had shot a portrait of a punk singer friend but found it lacked intensity. Gilles took his paintbrush and filled in the missing color.

Their basic technique remains the same. First they decide on a concept and a model, and then they build elaborate sets using common objects as props: a shredded Christmas garland, transparent starfish, plastic flowers, hair gel for tears (a recurring theme). When the set is finished and the model in place, Pierre takes the photo and Gilles meticulously paints in depth and luminosity.

Favorite subjects include the sea (they both grew up on the Atlantic coast — Gilles in Normandy, Pierre in the Vendée), adolescent boys and a typically ambiguous series of Catholic saints and Hindu gods, where angelic purity meets naïve eroticism.

They also appear to inhabit the world they have created. Entering their apartment in the Pré Saint Gervais, a suburb east of Paris, is like climbing inside one of their frames. Every inch is decorated with treasures one might find in a garage sale or the trinket shops of Chinatown: a guitar sporting Elvis’s face, colored Christmas balls hanging from a glitter-covered ceiling, a Bruce Lee poster, a red inflatable bunny. A row of plastic gods from Thailand sits underneath a waterfall of shimmering lights that flows when Gilles flicks a switch. “You feel at ease the moment you walk into their home,” said the French supermodel Laetitia Casta, who recently posed for them. “Suddenly, you are less distracted by what you have to do than by what is on the wall.”

Pierre and Gilles photograph only the people who inspire them, and they produce a mere 12 to 15 works a year. Believing their portraits were computer-generated, Michael Jackson once asked them to do 70 of him and was turned down. “They have refused an incredible number of commands from very famous people,” said Jérôme de Noirmont, whose gallery in Paris represents them. In any case, the model is secondary to the concept. “Sometimes we have a model we adore, but it takes a long time before we take the photo, because we have to find the best way to express the person,” says Pierre. “Or else we have an idea, and it takes us years to find the right model.”

Generally the subject discovers the set-up only at the time of the shoot.

“It’s not what I would have expected,” says Paloma Picasso, who was buried to her waist in sand and surrounded by red plastic crabs, “but I thought that’s what was interesting.” The artists took two portraits of Ms. Casta, one as Botticelli’s Venus and another in which she is hand-washing laundry. Ms. Casta was struck by the latter image: “This is the simple side that corresponds to me quite well, and that few people see. It made me laugh that they guessed that.”

But most of the artists’ subjects are not famous. Many are their friends, especially the gorgeous young men — Stéphane, Roy, Enzo, Karim — naked or nearly so, striking gently erotic poses. Pierre and Gilles’s gay work has become more daring with time, a fact they attribute to society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality, and also to their models, who are increasingly willing to go further.

A series from the mid-1990’s called “Les Plaisirs de la Forêt” (“Pleasures of the Forest”) takes the enchantment of a fairy-tale setting a leap beyond Little Red Riding Hood. Pierre and Gilles’s forest is a place of fantasy, where human figures, mainly lone men, emerge from the foliage like otherworldly beasts. Some are bloodied or tied to trees, waiting helplessly for who knows what to come along.

There has always been a melancholy side to their work — teary-eyed women, martyred saints — but in some of their later portraits they have revealed a darker vision. “Le Garçon des Néons” (“The Boy in the Neon Lights”), taken in 1998, shows a young man in shadow, standing in front of a broken window, blood streaming from his wrists. “In the beginning we touched less upon that kind of thing,” Gilles says. “We have been marked by difficult events, and you no longer see life like when you’re 20.”

At one time, art critics and curators were dismissive of the pair, and they themselves originally considered their niche more advertisements and album covers than museums. Their style is often labeled kitsch, a term they feel belittles their work. But in the last few years, the art world has come around. Their market value has soared, and museums from Japan to Finland have lined up to exhibit their work. Pierre and Gilles are not surprised by the attention. What they have long understood is that popular culture is, well, popular.

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