Présence Panchounette

Galerie de Paris / Galerie de Tugny Lamarre

After twenty-plus years of thumbing its collective nose at French art and society, Presence Panchounette, the Bordeaux-based group of artist-provocateurs made up of one former-boxer-turned-pedicurist (Frédéric Roux), one former-auto-racer-turned-secondhand-furniture-dealer (Michael Ferrière), and one still-working journalist at Radio Montecarlo (Jean-Yves Gros), has come up with the ultimate insult: the decision to disband. In a word, they say, the contemporary scene is boring, and even if the rest of their generation has been comfortably co-opted, they have no desire to join the institutional avant-garde.

In fact, PP has always claimed that when they got together, as 20-year-old students in the throes of May ’68, they might just as well have formed a rock band, since their main goal was to escape their working-class condition via fame, fortune, and female adulation. Since they had no musical talent, however, they decided to try their hand at Modern art, Situationist-style. Lack of formal training did not prevent them from incorporating themselves as a nonprofit organization and turning out a stream of graffiti, performances, happenings, hoaxes, manifestos, tracts, and letters denouncing bourgeois culture.

Such capers were hardly new, but what they lacked in novelty, PP made up for with the downscale wit implied in their name. For those versed in Bordeaux slang of the ’60s, choun is an obscenity, but Panchounette winds up suggesting something in the neighborhood of kitsch. Over the years, PP has gained polish and professionalism—their guerrilla art gave way to gallery and museum shows long ago—but as their farewell show at the Galerie de Paris, entitled “Présence Panchounette: The Last” amply demonstrates, they have not grown more polite. Their jokes are dirty, their taste is vulgar, and their mood is macho. Nothing is signed, much less titled or dated, and “strewn” would be the most appropriate word to describe the installation of the 120-odd paintings, plaques, sculptures, readymades, and other memorabilia (from CAT scans to the proverbial kitchen sink) seemingly conjured out of PP’s closets for the occasion. What they seem to be saying is not so much that kitsch is art, but that art is kitsch.

Despite the chaos, it’s clear that somebody in the group enjoys parodying the sacred cows of contemporary art (e.g., a pseudo-Kosuth definition of “chair,” in French); somebody has an eye for visual puns and flights of fancy (a replica of the Discobolos perched on a dishwasher surrounded by broken dishes), and somebody has a similarly witty way with words, often in English: SAFE SEX/SAVE SEX. It’s also clear that PP’s preoccupations are not limited to the world of art. In the “none of the above” category, there are, for example, various African sculptures decked out with the trappings of consumer culture to remind the French of the results of their civilizing mission, and a group of bronze plaques of the type usually posted at the entrances of fancy buildings to remind visitors not to bypass the doormat, engraved here with the sort of phrases that panhandlers write on pieces of cardboard: “I’m hungry,” “Handicapped without pension,” “1 or 2 francs, thank you.” PP’s very last group effort, shown concurrently at the Galerie de Tugny Lamarre, mounts a similarly deadpan assault on the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie with six frosted-glass panels that superimpose an elegant “PP” logo over verbatim entries from Who’s Who in France—including sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Romanian-born writer E. M. Cioran, several academic painters, tennis star Yannick Noah, and, at the very end of the row, avant-gardist Bertrand Lavier.

It would be difficult to argue that PP’s collection of potshots, however diverse and amusing, constitutes a major artistic achievement. But their targets are awfully well chosen, and the attention that “The Last” has received in the Paris press suggests that though the “kids” may well have grown up and gotten bored with the parade, nobody quite knows what to do about the emperor and his clothes.

Miriam Rosen