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Henri Guéguen: Pop with a Noble Purpose

Angelina Jolie, 40 x 40

While Don Flavin, Forrest Myers and other artists have employed neon tubes to create light sculptures, the French painter  Henri Gu�guen may be the first to use their unlikely surface as one would a canvas.
   Gu�guen’s enamel portrait tribute to the late Lady Diana on a row of nineteen such tubes mounted close together is not only a technical triumph but a conceptual tour de force. For encountering it is to be reminded of how the star-crossed princess was pursued to her death in a car crash in a dark tunnel in Paris by a horde of paparazzi.
   The unusual medium, by its very purpose, makes one immediately wonder how many ignored traffic lights the chase must have heedlessly raced through, imagine all the  flashbulbs of the rabid photographers popping along the way, and picture the people from the police coroner’s office and the newspaper photographers later documenting the crumpled car in the aftermath of the terrible wreck. Some will also think of Elton John’s famous Pop elegy to his friend, Diana, “Candle in the Wind.”
     Whether this was the artist’s original intention, or whether he chose the neon tubing simply because of the challenge of painting on its rounded surface rather than the more conducive flat surface of a standard artist’s canvas, is of course immaterial.  A work of art, once it is completed, has a logic and a life of its own. And here the unusual material adds to the resonance of the tragic fairy tale legend of the young princess who attempted to escape from the castle and live like a normal person and was hounded to an early death by the blinding glare of her own celebrity.
   The other unusual material that Gu�guen chose to paint on in enamels, for his portrait of the adolescent Holocaust martyr Anne Frank, is just as resonant in another way: lacquer on the white plastic interior refills of Bic Pens; many of them lined up in half a dozen rows to create a slightly ridged but more or less flat textured surface on which the artist was able to reproduce by hand in monochrome grisaille the familiar photograph of this courageous young woman, who, confined in an attic with her family hiding from the Nazis, wrote (presumably using similarly simple schoolgirl pens) a diary that, after their tragic deaths, became a world classic of Holocaust literature.
    Here, again, the artist’s original intention in choosing his materials is quite beside the point: the work he created, in part because of the poetic appropriateness of those materials, has a life of its own. 
   Henri Gu�guen chose the interiors of Bic Pens once again, lined up in the same manner, on which to paint his enamel portrait of the famous film actress Angelina Jolie. Here too, they seem just as appropriate as in the previous painting, being the sort of instrument, a simple ballpoint pen, that a person might use to compose a letter confiding very personal news to a close friend; news that the movie star chose to make public: about her recent double-mastectomy, which she courageously shared with the world in the hope that it might influence other women with a genetic predisposition toward breast cancer to make a similar decision to save their own lives.
    Indeed, Gu�guen’s entire solo exhibition, which is titled “Femmes a l’honneur,” and which was inspired by his grandmother and includes portraits of several other outstanding women, is a moving tribute to the feminine spirit in materials that transcend mere novelty to lend their own unique relevance to the work.                                 –– Maureen Flynn


Henri Gu�guen, Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th St., through November 19, 2013.
Reception: Thursday, November 7, 6 - 8 pm.

View press release and exhibition information

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