In the same way that Bob Mizer was known for his use of props and costumes in his still images and films, so too are French duo Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard revered for their use of color, religious and mythical iconography, and staples of masculine culture.
The French duo, known simply as Pierre et Gilles, are experimental artists by trade, and have also been lovers for more than 40 years, when they also began making art together. Their work, produced in a Paris studio, is a mixture of both photography and painting, of people and settings that are both beautiful and cruel, incorporating human subjects ranging from no-name models to household names of pop culture, such as Mick Jagger, Nina Hagen, and gay porn star Jeff Stryker. One of their first portraits, in the mid-1970s, featured pop artist Andy Warhol, who at the time was working with former Mizer model Joe Dallesandro.
Unlike Mizer, of whom portrait photographs seem to be somewhat rare, Pierre and Gilles document each other in their work, the finished products usually displaying the men as tanned, toned, muscular, and dripping with sexuality. And, unlike many experimental photographers, the two eschew digital retouching of their images, instead working completely by hand.
Their subjects, adorned in bondage wear and boyish sailor uniforms, in biker gear and in the white and blue robes of the Virgin Mary, as athletes and wood nymphs and Hindu deities, are made even more striking by their posing. The pair’s portraits heavily feature standard figures of masculinity, including soldiers, cowboys, sailors, all of whom are mainstays in Mizer’s work throughout his long career.
Some subjects seem to stare off camera as if deep in reflection, much like Mizer’s models who were gazing at a mirror image of themselves. Other subjects seem to break a fourth wall, glaring directly at the viewer with disdain or disgust.
Pierre, the photographer of the two, is the one who shoots his models in both black and white, and color, and those photos serve as the base images. Gilles, a painter his entire life, creates with his paintbrush elaborate backgrounds and settings. In any given image, sparkles, wildflowers, or blood splatter encircle the human subject, giving him or her an otherworldly aura, as if out of a fantasy tale. The two men create their set pieces and props together.
The men share at least one other quirk with Mizer, too. According to a 2001 article published in Salon, a 1996 image of a muscular young man “reclines in forest brambles, his head and torso splattered by the photo stylist’s equivalent of semen.” That semen, Gilles notes, “is actually something improvised. … Johnny was originally meant to be a beautiful, young thug, but he turned into something more vulnerable. It’s fake cum, just something we concocted … I think we used shampoo” (Mizer, who was admittedly disgusted by the sight of semen, also used shampoo in place of ejaculate during his brief foray into making hardcore porn films in the early 1970s).
And, like Mizer, of course, the men, whose works have appeared in galleries around the world and throughout the pages of more than one Taschen coffee table book, haven’t been without their critics and detractors. Efforts to censor male nudity in their works came to a head in 2012, when their a piece from their international exhibit “Vive le France,” was censored in Austria. The homoerotic image, which carried the same name as the exhibit itself, depicted three French footballers of different nationalities standing side by side, their genitals fully exposed to the viewer. Large street posters advertising the exhibit in Vienna featured a ribbon across the genital areas of each player.
As artists, Gilles says in a 2014 interview with The Associated Press, the men are used to being received in such a way – after all, it comes with the job.
“We’re like this naturally,” he says. “It can disturb, but artists are made for that – shaking things up to make people reflect.”