Gilles Barbier has developed a complex and highly diverse body of work using a variety of media. Sculptures made of organic or artificial materials, gouache paintings, drawings, photographs and objects form an ensemble examining the enigma of existence. The aesthetic behind his work draws equal amounts of inspiration from history, cinema, psychoanalysis, philosophy, the sciences, and comic books.
Out of this emerge other, falsely similar worlds from ours in which hyperrealistic characters are represented in absurd or schizophrenic situations where green plants, bananas, cheese, earthworms and cosmetics bloom in madcap tales. Gilles Barbier’s work is inexhaustibly generous and multiple. Entering his world is like diving headfirst into a raging ocean. Living in Marseille, he has developed a body of work that resembles the city: unstable, restless, deep, human, disturbing... his unique work defies any easy labels. And, most of all, Barbier’s work is untameable. Through the myriad trajectories taken by his work and through the connections it has created over the years, Barbier refuses the diktats of art, forever resisting via a sociological or political prism through which he tries to interpret the world.
What visual power! You rarely forget your first encounter with Gilles Barbier’s work.
Whether you are standing before one of his oversized drawings using Posca® markers, gouache and spray paint (which he uses and abuses on large sheets of tracing paper), a work like Festin where a bench sags under the weight of the food on it, thus arousing an equal share of desire and repugnance, Pawns-Pions, where mini-Gilles Barbiers are made of wax or resin with multiple identities, slices of Swiss cheese filled with as many messages as there are holes, Banana Riders where a herd of bananas are driven by black-clad knights, or drawings of worms that devour their surrounding space by burrowing tunnels and asking existential questions, his work visually captivates the spectator and runneth over with the clues of an incomplete quest. This complex and plentiful body of work explores rational thought processes and overlapping ideas through fictional tales. Writing and language – tools and reception and expression of thoughts and ideas – play a central role in all of Gilles Barbier’s work. The writing here is subtle and precise, it moves, intertwines, stings, plays, and caresses; it is free and unique, like a notebook filled with ruminations.
For the HAB Galerie – and for the first time in France – Gilles Barbier is presenting all the Pages du dictionnaire he has completed to date.
Upon leaving the École des beaux-arts in 1992, Barbier found himself faced with the infinite possibilities of artistic creation. He completed Game of Life – Jeu de la vie, echoing the system used in Luke Rhinehart’s renowned book The Dice Man, where the main character lives his life based on the roll of a dice. For the HAB Galerie exhibition, Game of Life – Jeu de la vie is composed of a labyrinth on the floor made of several wooden slabs strewn with scraps of paper with scribbled phrases, like: Habiter la peinture (“live inside painting”), habiter la viande (“live inside meat”), partir à la conquête de l’espace (“conquer space”), faire quelque chose avec n’importe quoi (“do something with anything”), corriger la réalité (“correct reality”), se planquer dans l’atelier (“hide out in the studio”)... Others are just as enigmatic: Placer des super héros dans des corps qui ont l’âge de leurs copyrights (“place superheroes inside bodies that are as old as their copyrights”)...
On one of the scraps, one can read: Travailler le dimanche. Le pion L’inconséquence des gestes (“Work on Sundays. The pawn. The inconsequence of gestures”), stopped at one of the slabs, pointing at it.”) After deciding to pursue an activity that would never lead to a complete work in spite of requiring rigorous commitment, he began copying the biggest book in his library...
– one that exhaustively lists our knowledge of the world: Le Petit Larousse Illustré (1966). “Working on Sundays” gradually became “Copying the dictionary” and embodied an ambitious work, the backbone running through the life of this artist. On a wide sheet of paper, Barbier copies out all the definitions in alphabetical order in ink and reproduces the illustrations in gouache. Whatever word he is copying is of little importance; instead, the square-shaped sheet dictates the cut-off point. After hundreds of hours of copying, this protocol has resulted in De A à Alpha, De Coloquinte à Couche-culotte, and De Humide à Invalidité, which will be among the 24 works presented.
Echoing this major work, which takes visitors from letters A to P, a number of the artist's sculptures and installations will also offer “a journey into this universe of words, gouache paintings, dreams, digressions, hesitations, errors and just as many victories over time, language and meaning.”
Throughout the HAB Galerie, picture rails stand apart like the open pages of a book, reminiscent of the Hokusai engraving where the wind flings papers high into the sky. This is how visitors will discover Le livre des trous (“The Book of Holes”), Emmental Head, Logorrhée (“Logorrhea”) – works where writing and language are omnipresent, staining and scarring objects and bodies, like the Vieille femme aux tatouages (“Old Lady with Tattoos”) reclining on her chaise longue, her skin tattooed with cosmetics brands.
Because the body is always at the heart of Barbier’s adventures in language.
This body that submits to thought and the imagination, that twists itself, bends over, focuses, and tires out – just as the artist's body tires out as he copies the tiny letters of the dictionary at his table. Smiling Skull greets visitors with its wide, terrifying smile and joyful air, while Entre les articulations (le langage) (“Between the joints (language)”) stands before them like a structure composed of bones. Language seeps down into the deepest corners of the body until it commands it like a puppet. And, because language constitutes this entire body, it is also its voice. Pronouncing, articulating, reciting. In this third iteration of Les Pages roses – once at the Venice Biennale, then in Linz in 1995 – in a room entirely painted in Larousse pink, Barbier makes a number of taxidermized animals speak in Latin. Preserved dead animals speak a dead tongue, resulting in the vestige of an abandoned language. Even if Travailler le dimanche reveals some of the secrets of Gilles Barbier’s work, one must certainly slip on a banana peel to grasp all of its complexity!
Gilles Barbier was born in 1965, in Vanuatu (South Pacific). He lives and works in Marseille (France). He is represented by Galerie GP&N Vallois in Paris.
Gilles Barbier has participated in several group shows.
His work can be seen in many collections, both in museums and institutions: The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, USA; Fundación ARCO, Madrid, Spain; Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, France; Centre national des Arts Plastiques, Paris La Défense, Paris, France; Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, Paris, France; Musée National d’Art moderne — Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France; MAC/VAL, Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val de Marne, Vitry-sur-Seine, France Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC), Marseille, France; Carré d’Art, Musée d’art contemporain, Nîmes, France; Frac Corse, Corti, France; Frac Languedoc-Roussillon, Montpellier, France; Frac Nord Pas-de-Calais, Dunkerque, France; Frac Pays de Loire, Carquefou, France; Frac Picardie, Amiens, France; Frac Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Marseille, France; Frac Rhône-Alpes, Villeurbanne, France; Fonds Communal d’Art Contemporain de la ville de Marseille, Marseille, France.
© Marc Domage