Unglee // On le croyait heureux (we thought he was happy)

Galerie Christophe Gaillard
Nov 25, 2014 5:44PM

What do we know about Unglee ? That he loved tulips and their fragrance, photography, cinema, that he had two wives and a male lover unless he had many more, that he cultivated his tulips in Melun for a while, or elsewhere, that celebrity played a very important role in his career, as is shown by his visits in Hollywood or at the MoMA, unless it was on the Riviera. 

But who are we talking about here ? A fictional character such as the one we discover in his Disparitions (Disappearances) ? The artist as much at ease with studio photography than with photomontage, with a cinematographic form of writing than with parody ?

Whoever would try to see through the complexity of the character Unglee would soon realize the purposelessness of his enterprise, the deception being intentional and the information shared as factual and precise as scarce. 

Better then stick to the signs and forms left by Unglee as many clues of a work as conceptual as it is sensational or sensual, likely to capture «l’air du temps» - the spirit of the times - (if only to use the name of the perfume which appears in his film Radio-Serpent, 1980) with humor and impertinence, reminding us of the work of Opalka or Warhol. There is no protocol ruling openly over his oeuvre, but one obsessional pattern - the tulip - relentlessly presented under a variety of forms (photographs, films, perfume…). There are no representations of Elvis, Marilyn, Liz, Ileana Sonnabend or even hibiscus but a series of obituaries allowing to convey through the filter of a singular and composite identity, an array of celebrities (Castelli, Minnelli and Ogier (daughter), a talented composer who died prematurely or even a tulip named "Princess Charmante" a true Hollywood beauty).

Two major themes cross Unglee’s work : self-portraits and portraits of tulips – unless they are both indivisible as we might assume from the self-portrait entitled Unglee à dix- sept dans le jardin familial (Unglee at seventeen in the family garden). The photograph isn’t dated, which therefore makes it harder for an eventual exegete who should try to figure out the artist’s year of birth. The young man wearing a red sweater seems to merge with the six tulips in the fore- ground. Maybe then should we interpret the photographs of red tulips on a black background from the series Identité ( 1990 - 1992) as variations on the artist’s portrait. They were created simultaneously to "Recherche de Princess Charmante" (Looking for Princesse Charmante) (1990-1996), another identity quest on a strange bulb that a long and fastidious investigation led by the artist will allow to authenticate. 

Then, the Disparitions will associate the character Unglee to "his" tulips. A contemporary journalistic twin to funeral oration or panegyric associating death to fame on a more or less adulatory tone depending on the region, the obituary will have found in Unglee a true wordsmith familiar to the task. With this journalistic pastiche, both textual and visual also resorting to photomontage, a fiction was born through the various inserts repeated in artistic press between 1994 and 2008. Each text mentioning thoroughly Unglee's passion for tulips is accompanied by a portrait of the artist. In the Disparition entitled Unglee, la rumba de la tulipe, Paris 1993-8 mai 1995, the photograph that comes with the text uses an advertisement created for the perfume Tulipe Bleue (Publicité pour le parfum Tulipe Bleue, 1995). It shows a portrait of Unglee who seems to be carelessly leaning on a chimney mantelpiece framed by dark tulips. There again we find a similar association to that of the family garden, only the setting has changed, the obsession only got stronger. 

The Disparitions, like the obsessional tulip pattern invite us to a new pictorial understanding - that of the vanitas - which gained respectability in Flemish painting when the crisis of the tulip(1) occurred. A painting such as Vanitas by Jacob de Gheyn (1603) kept at the Metropolitan Museum, gathers the skull, the tulip and the burning incense, all elements indicating the fleeting essence of life. With Unglee, the photograph of the deceased has replaced the skull, the perfume has replaced the incense. If the tulips survive from one representation to the next, they also symbolize the deciduous nature of life and, as the artist will write in one of his Déclarations (Statements) "Unglee cries because tulips are ephemeral"(2). Trying to associate them to his biography also brings to mind the Myth of Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection, because after all, tulips, also belonging to the Liliaceae family, might have a less worn-out symbolism. 

1. Considered as the first speculative crunch, the tulip crunch or "tulipomania" takes place in the middle of the 17th century in the united provinces of the Netherlands. After the tulip enthusiasm, the market-price of the bulb overly increased before crashing.

2 Unglee, Déclarations, published by the centre d’art contemporain de Basse-Normandie , Hérouville Saint-Clair, 1993.

Galerie Christophe Gaillard