'Yeah, that's our ad for Italian Vogue' says Vincent eagerly filling the table with pictures, 'and this is for Calvin Klein, and this for Hugo Boss.' Julian grabs one of the prints and points to the dark set, the same kind of diffuse light as in the movie 'The Ice-storm' and says, 'The thing that interests us about fashion is being able look at it closely, reverse engineer it, giving a lot to look at, like a riddle you have to solve through decoding semiotics.'
Vincent Mazeau, Randall Peacock and Julian LaVerdiere graduated from Yale's art school some years ago, but they didn't opt for the art galleries down in SoHo, instead they found themselves this large loft in former Hell's Kitchen, once full of hookers, quite a insecure neighbourhood, but rather inspiring, now cleaned up and left a bore by Mayor Giuliani. And from here they went straight into the commercial world. Props and sets are everywhere, gear for photo sessions, a small replica of a V-2-rocket, and also a tiny but strange little pillow vibrating with light, a design project about to be launched. Narrow sleeping-quarters has been fitted into the space, as well as a large reference library stuffed with computer databases. Different large-scale projects are on the way here and there. But there's enough space for individual projects as well. Judging from their list of clients, ranging from Sheryl Crow to Spice Girls, from Versace to Ralph Lauren, from Volvo to IBM, you would expect a bunch of well-managed, well-dressed, made-up guys, rather than these laid-back university kids in jeans and pullovers.
'Our fashion photography is very much influenced by film still tradition, where you can distil a film down to the iconographic image representing that film, and art like Cindy Sherman's "Untitled film stills", where you as a viewer fill in the blanks in the most glorious manner.' Vincent and Julian interrupts each other eagerly. 'It's almost like creating mini narratives. What we want is to create complex images that people are supposed to look at twice in order to understand, trying to figure out what's going on.'
Vincent and Julian doesn't shy away about their interest in commercial culture, that they want to have a fresh view at it as artists. Their involvement in formal as well as conceptual design and art direction does really crosses some boundaries. But is it okay to fuse art and commerce? It's not an easy question, but it sure has a long history. Do take a look at the latest extension to the Louvre in Paris, the 'Musée de la Publicité'. In this high-tec milieu by Jean Nouvel you'll find terrific posters and such from the turn of the century by grand men like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Edouard Manet, just to name a few of them. They all did develop the artistic language of advertisement. Andy Warhol and Pop Art took it the other way around in the '60s, when they usurped the flashy colours of massproduction in their artistry. Admittedly the boundaries are quite soft today, art and advertising is done through the same mediums, with the same techniques, even the driving forces seems to be shared now and then, the next exhibition, scheduled for April, will probe this question.
'We decided to dive right into commercial culture and learn something with it' explains Julian. 'Or actually produce it, you know, like change it from the inside rather than from a distant perspective' interrupts Vincent. But isn't dangerously contagious to work behind the enemy lines, I wonder, is it really possible to make art where the primary goal is making money? I've got my doubts, although I must admit, leafing through Benetton's latest campaign, this time against the death penalty, that I appreciate Oliviero Toscani. He has the kind of independence it takes, and although a lot of people criticise him for putting art in the services of capital, his campaigns has challenged our judgments on many accounts. Undoubtedly, at least in my eyes, it's art in that sense: intriguing, questioning, provoking our contemporary society.
'What is art today?' questions Vincent rethorically, 'I think all these big billboards on buses and such are respected as real public art. I just did the Calvin Klein campaign, and the gesture was kind of simple, it was a kind of portraiture. And I think this is way more interesting than doing half of these art works out there by some artists in their fifties and sixties, these pieces of steel painted orange and popped in a plaza, made for the one percent for art. I can't think of one thing which is beyond the '60s mentality of making art.' And Julian adds, 'There is this weird borders what we assume that art is legitimate, but advertising is questionable, because one is run by capital, and one is supposed to be honest. But once they become so co-mingled it's more like a fine proof that culture at large is swallowed by advertising.' 'I think your Calvin Klein campaign represents a kind of crossover which is now in the vogue, it uses real rockstars and real individuals, placed in real world environments, it's a levelling, it brings it into a tangible reality, it's no super highbrow fashion environments.' Levi's recent campaigns are other examples, using artists to create the right kind of feeling. Julian says this is a new terrain to explore: 'Is it art or is it advertising? It's hard to determine, it's an indistinguishable boundary right now.' and Vincent adds determined, 'The least interesting question for our generations is if it is art or not, I don't think it boils down to that kind of essential nature any more. And I don't think people are as critical of advertising now as they were in the '80s, people have almost come to term with it, the world being run by a dozen super-corporations, whether it be TNT, Microsoft, Mobile, I don't see a conflict, I don't see any revolution growing, people want to be in an Levis add, people want to be in a Calvin Klein add. And Calvin Klein wants to be in the real world.'
Do I sense a kind of resignation, that there's no life outside the money-making business? Not really, these guys don't believe there is a contradiction in their positions. Julian talks abut total culture, assuering they can make it smarter, probing the relations between representation and represented, between image and subject. In creating their environments Big Room are adding narrative elements, adding identities to character, doing a different kind of portraiture. Vincent picks up some shoots of Brad Pitt, and editorial for W Magazine. Compared to Toscani's picture of Death Row, this comes closer to reality. Brad as Tyler in Fight Club, same kind of wear, on the bunk, low light, sweaty, contorted face, porn and motocross-racing on tv-sets stuck up on the wall. 'Yeah, Brad called up Steven Klein, the photographer, and said "I wanna do something, I'm not gonna look like this for long, I'm not gonna keep my head shaven." he even had a tooth chipped by a dentist. So we read Fight Club and interpreted it our own way, inventing this environment, working together with the costume designer Michael Kaplan.'
And Calvin Klein saw the work, liked it. But their lucky break came even earlier, when Randall started collaborating with Richard Avedon, that gave credence. 'The art school education helped a lot, it seemed that the industry's standards was far lower than the art school's, so once we were in our training made it easy to work our way through the system fast.' And in an extremely conservative industry, with art directors who probably dropped out of art school the first semester now doing creative branding, you either end up frustrated or take over. Big Room doesn't hesitate and when Smashbox, the biggest fashion agency in Los Angeles, a year ago decided to a start new branch in New York, Big Room teamed up with them. They found themselves on the A-list, introduced to top clients.
I glance through their work, it's a terrific light, sets filled up with allusions. But isn't all these surroundings way too dark, where some model or rock-star or movie-star lies forlorn, not so very cool really, but with this 'I don't care'-attitude, and why should they really? 'Yeah, I think these environments and these people has a very dark feeling,' admits Julian, 'I mean, these are tortured people, they show a kind of angst, we want to bring that into the issue, yeah, that's true, all of our work has a certain degree of angst, maybe that's common to fashion a large, but especially to the ones we've been working at.' How come, is it an existensialist thing, bereft of God in ourselves we trust, nonetheless overwhelmed with doubt about the very meaning of life, the universe and everything?
The same kind of utter despair is shown in a video-clip for Nokia, but here it makes sense. A kind of 'Fountainhead' set-up, a guy with his cell-phone, nice suit, obviously trying to be in charge, but running around under looming skyscrapers, all in black-and-white. And the images of modernist architecture crushes into each other, shatters, breaks, just the kind of head-ache experience you get from using your mobile too much, melting down your brain, way distant from the usual stuff.
'I believe in working from the inside, sometimes lie seeds, or sublimeral questions. That does give me satisfaction. It's not quite being a saboteur, it's about doing something that might raise questions in the view, that the commercial client don't necessarily wants to be asked.'
I glance at an ad for Hugo Boss, all in a bluish light, expensive suits, men with hard faces, all set in what looks like a bunker, or some modern architecture. It's a nice ad, the aesthetic has a certain clean-cut feeling to it. At the same time it's scary, something is lurking behind, hidden behind the concrete walls. Julian gives me the story: 'In this one case, I thought of menswear being particularly threatening, so we made this threatening environment, based upon an Albert Speer bunker. I mean, a $4000 suit threatens me! If I have to dress to those standards I'm threatened. It's a class issue, to a certain degree the class system of fashion bothers me, and this ad is one way to come to terms with it.' 'Right from the beginning we were able to have a go with top clients, but it sort of startled us, we felt contempt for some of these king pins, or thought they were dangerous. I sort had a bone to pic when we got this commission for Hugo Boss. We heard that he had a chequered past and that he haberdashed for the SS, and that sort of influenced our campaign. I had this instinct to serve and rebel, and the only way we could rebel was by creating a commentary in one way or another. Maybe not like saboteurs, but illustrating the true nature of this client for the viewer.' Julian explains that they choose this kind of Albert Speer-like bunker which should give a feeling of oppression, of totalitarianism, which seems to have been his feeling about the client. Hugo Boss don't seem to care, though. And Julian admits that unless you have seen the remains of the Atlantic wall, few will recognise the reference, they might take it for Louis Kahn, and that prop in the middle could very well be a piece of modern art by Donald Judd. But this is how to sow the seeds of revolt without biting the hand that feeds them too severly. In the end their images will get to you anyway, whether you like it or not.
Published in Frame
© 2001 Calimero