An Homage

Pharrell’s ‘GIRLS’ Exhibit Stars...Pharrell?

In his latest move, the popular musician has co-curated a new art exhibit in Paris. But that’s not his only role. Despite the show’s name, the spotlight is often trained back on him.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Call it a publicity stunt extraordinaire. Pharrell Williams, the multi-hyphenate rap artist, fashion designer, and, now, art curator kicked off the opening of the new 700-square-meter premises of Paris’s Galerie Perrotin on Monday with a private concert and his first art exhibition, GIRL, which is dedicated to women…and himself.

Indeed, despite the title of the show, a portion of the exhibit features works by some of Pharrell’s artist friends, who chose the musician himself as their muse.

Imagine Pharrell’s face emblazoned across a sofa; his body molded into a sculpture; the singer shown dancing with his wife in a flower-power swirl of happy petals; or posing as Napoleon on a diminutive horse before a giant woman rising from the Pyramids.

“Artists close to Pharrell decided to offer a tribute to him depicting him as an icon. Each artist remained critical of pop art and pop artists in doing so,” Ashok Adicéam, the show’s co-curator and advisor to the gallery, said.

Included in the show is a painting by artist Laurent Grasso that will serve as the cover for one of Pharrell’s albums, as well as a “Peanuts”-like image from KAWS who is designing a perfume bottle for the singer’s new fragrance, GIRL.

But once you get past the commercial hype and homage to Pharrell, the exhibition succeeds as a curation of visual stories about women, albeit one that doesn’t have a cohesive message or add much depth to the question of what it means to be female.

Forty-eight works from 37 artists, including 18 women, are on display, and the selection is eclectic.

“The thing that Pharrell, Emmanuel Perrotin [co-curator and show instigator], and myself wanted was diversity, so you have 37 points of views and 37 intentions which are different, and that is the main intention of the show which is very energetic and mainstream as it has to be,” Adicéam said.

In one section of the exhibit that celebrates the idea of womanhood, some of the piece by male artists look quite obvious, while those from women often tell a deeper story.

Artist Johan Creten created sculptures showing a voluptuous, curvy woman bulging inside golden ribbing, and a Grecian, female torso made of swirls of plaster. Jean-Michel Othoniel created a vast necklace suspended between the ceiling and floor as a non-linear interpretation of what it means to be female.

Other contributions from male artists include photos of Marilyn Monroe, reworked and blurred by Gregor Hildebrandt, and an acrylic painting of the traditional, and rather obvious, female symbol by Rob Pruitt.

Female artists, on the other hand, contributed works like a photograph depicting a woman in a sassy pose from Mickalene Thomas’s series on pornography. Sophie Calle portrays a woman confidently holding and showing her breasts. A photograph by Yoko Ono shows a woman having her bra cut, and life-size Japanese dolls in colorful attire resemble miniatures brought to life by the pop artist, Chiho Aoshima.

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In a video by Abramovic and her former husband, Ulay, Ulay points a bow and arrow at the artist in an exploration of trust in a relationship. Cindy Sherman chose to include a print from 1982 showing her clad in a pink robe in a showdown environment that looks like it could be in a Rembrandt.

The idea of the exhibition, according to Adicéam, was to create a conversation around the stereotypes and archetypes of women, with hopes of reversing these preconceived notions.

“We invited artists like Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic, who are known to be not quite feminists but have an aesthetical and critical point of view, to do a reversal of those images of women which is very strong in the exhibition and which is opening a conservation,” Adicéam said. “Artists like Sophie Calle look at the body. There are not too many nudes except from woman artists and these are both aesthetical and critical.”

Adicéam did his homework, spending 50 days collecting pieces, many with unexpected stories behind them.

This was the case with Prune Nourry, a young French sculptress who went to India to create a piece of art interpreting women.

“She took the sacred cow and made a hybrid woman cow which is called Holy Daughter,” Adicéam said. “It is like she is having pains in her stomach from where she gives milk.”

The sculpture was put on display in public spaces around India, and Nourry filmed the reactions of local men who encountered the piece. “Most of the time, the body language was very violent towards the sculpture,” Adicéam said.

Bharti Kher’s contribution to the exhibit is a sculpture of a figure crouching with wires coming out of the neck, the head ripped off in an image of violence that was inspired by the Indian goddess of destruction, Kali, and is perhaps redolent of the rapes that have made the headlines in India.

“It is [Kher’s] own interpretation so [Kali] is drinking tea, and she is holding a vanity in her hand so it is a kind of fusion of two kinds of representations of Kali the Goddess of destruction. She is sitting on a piece of wood, but you don’t know if she is a man or a lady. If there is something coming out of her she is a lady, and if not she is a man,” Adicéam said. “It is a very disturbing piece and very strong.”

Given the show’s mission, it has received some backlash for the inclusion of a provocative Terry Richardson photograph that portrays a naked woman with a strategically positioned small edible heart reading “Eat Me.” Both Perrotin and Pharrell have defended Richardson’s participation, but it’s hard to resolve his contribution in light of the recent accusations of sexual assault against him.

In the end, Pharrell’s main contribution to the show came from his roots: He provided a musical sensibility that helped shape the exhibition.

“What we really did was try and compose with 37 artists and 48 works a kind of modest opera, a general work whose intention is to give a platform to celebrate the beauty of women and also question stereotypes and explore the possibility of reversal,” Adicéam said. Everyone that came today was touched by the harmony, and the music which comes out of the show.”

GIRL will be on display at the Galerie Perrotin in Paris through June 25.