The dangerous thing about mavericks is that they are always unpredictable. Pierre Laniau could be compared to a satellite that suddenly decided to stop orbiting the Earth and landed with a crash on the visual arts planet. When he was 33, this world-renowned and much sought-after classical guitarist (whose repertoire mainly focussed on Erik Satie) decided to collect some electoral posters of presidential candidates and slap some paint over them. Not just any old candidate, but the real big cheeses: Mitterrand, Clinton and Sarkozy. And just as every self-respecting citizen never misses an election, he has been doing this for the last 27 years, collecting literally thousands of posters from various campaign headquarters and redacting their content. He has kept about a thousand of the most successful ones, which form a series of pre-mediated parricides without any extenuating circumstances. Such posters are usually the crème de la crème in terms of visual communication. Their slogans are devised by advertising legends such as Séguela and Beigbeder; the candidate’s face is photoshopped pore by pore; and the surface covered by the relevant colour (either red or blue of course) is meticulously measured. In short, every little detail has been analysed, judged, and compared to create the perfect portrait of a 21st century leader, confidant and self-assured, with a strong chin and a predatory smile. And it is the images of these contemporary icons that Pierre Laniau has dared to use as his raw material, unscrupulously covering them with paint, throwing, spreading and thickly layering that noble medium onto their surface. Could there be a better example of iconoclasm?
When Andy Warhol returned to painting in 1971, he chose a portrait based on the most frequently reproduced image of a world leader at the time, the official portrait of Mao. He produced ‘identical’ silkscreen prints, saying he ‘wasn’t doing anything creative’. He simply daubed some paint on the background, timidly at first and then more and more violently, using his fingers until the printed face was no longer visible. When he was asked why he had chosen to paint these portraits of Mao, he casually answered that it was fashionable. He didn’t go into the politics of his choice, whilst finding it funny that a Chinese delegation preferred to avoid the room where they were on show. Strangely Warhol decided not to exhibit the series in the USA where Mao was considered to be the very incarnation of evil. To see him thus smeared with pain was inconceivable for his subjects, but even covered in paint, his enemies still found him threatening.
So who exactly is Pierre Laniau? Is he a closet vandal or a painter with a penchant for farcical compositions? His works contradict such facile analyses. We rejoice when we see how he covers these posters in paint. After all, isn’t he only doing what everybody has dreamt of doing as they sit on the metro without daring to act? The encounter between paint and the printed image creates meaning: a gaze takes on a mischievous air; spirals become a metaphor for political blah blah and the application of a glaze bestows a mystical aura. In these works the artist, seemingly blessed with a beginner’s grace, reminds us of the codes of twentieth century art. Countless other artists who produced similar works come to mind: the gestural abstraction of Hartung; Arnulf Rainer’s fits of rage, the lacerated posters of Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains and appropriation artists’ love of images. But Laniau’s gesture is not, or at least not intentionally, part of this history: its raison d’être is rooted in a constant and deep-seated desire to confront these walls of images that surround and bear down upon us. Let’s not forget that he comes from the discrete and learned world of classical music.
Pierre Laniau could have been nothing more than an obsessive figure, such as Camus’ character Joseph Grand in The Plague, who devotes all his evenings to perfecting the first line of his novel. However he is an artist who has more than one creative string to his bow. In addition to the guitar, he writes every day and takes photos as others write entries in their diary. His preference goes to what he calls his ‘Fétiches de Rue’, images like abstract sculptures that he pulls away from the reality of the streets. In parallel to disrupting the featureless world of posters, camera in hand he is constantly on the lookout for improbable assemblies and strange compositions, revealing an ability to find something unexpected in the most banal situations. His art is one of wandering, full of his natural sense of humour, and the result of a competition between the nostalgia of his poetic vision and an explosion of contrasts.