It is the story of a guy who liked telling stories and had a gift for illustration. In truth, genes were on his side since his mom was a visual artist and a poet, and his great grandfather a master glassmaker who was acquainted with Edouard Manet, made stained glass for Viollet-le-Duc, and worked at the artist residency La Ruche. This is not without link with the thick black outline that characterizes Greg Guillemin, which is reminiscent of stained-glass partitioning. Or would if come from his Japanese comics culture?
Genes don’t explain all, far from it.
Born in 1967, on the eve of a big generational liberation movement, Greg “Leon” Guillemin was brought up in rock’n’roll and pop art. Rocked by the swinging sixties, this unclassifiable artist was spoon-fed with American culture from Marvel to Andy Warhol, then a rising star, as well as Japanese pop culture. Real “son of a pitch”, it is not surprising in the era of advertising that Greg navigated the ad world in the 1990s and 2000s. As an early Internet user, he took advantage of these newly available media to create images inspired by comics, pop culture, and entertainment in a style evocative of Roy Lichtenstein.
It was only in 2010 that Greg’s first digital creations entitled Minimalz were posted online. Quickly, more than 400 graphic designers answered Greg’s calling as well as the themes of his virtual exhibitions. In 2011, Cinémathèque Française paid a tribute to his contribution on the occasion of its exhibition dedicated to Stanley Kubrick. As a pioneer of geek art and a source of inspiration for many books on digital illustration, Greg has forged a very powerful visual language that speaks to everybody and shares some affinities with urban art. His vibrant color palette, his sense of framing, and his roots in illustration and ligne claire speak for themselves. This is how his digital series on heroes, robots, and pop icons naturally turned into paper cuts and then paintings starting in 2013.
It was that same year that Greg created his most emblematic series entitled Secret Life of Heroes, which made him famous to the general audience worldwide, and is still very popular today. In this series, the artist unveiled the all-too-human shortcomings of superheroes and imagines them in the bathroom or in everyday life situations, which prompted endless debates journalists and sociologists about the message of these works. What a recognition! In 2014, upon Pharell Williams’s invitation, Greg created an entire series for the New York magazine ADON, thus joining the ranks of the greatest international illustrators.
Yet, Greg doesn’t claim ownership of anything. When he posts a work on social media or the Internet, the old-fashion way, it no longer belongs to him. While he remains the owner of the physical medium, the course and span of the work’s life are no longer up to him. But at a time when images have taken precedence over written words, Greg’s art isn’t entirely without messages, on the contrary. But his graphic style sublimates it all. Here lies the richness of his practice and vision. The Montreux Jazz Festival made no mistake about it, and commissioned Greg sixty-one digital creations and eighteen canvas paintings on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, with one of them offered as a gift to Quincy Jones. Greg’s way of appropriating his subject matter is totally unique and fresh. Although he revisits well-known characters, Greg always tells a new story, like artists of narrative figuration such as Erró. It is the reason why Galerie Christiane Vallé has kept an eye on him. His work has entered this prestigious third generation gallery in recent years.
Very handcrafted at first, Greg’s works have become increasingly technical. Their varnish finish, which brings a shiny and smooth texture to his canvases, as well as his mastery of detail also bear witness to the evolution of his work from his first digital creations up to his latest big formats in tribute to the great masters of the history of art. Panning Batman and Van Gogh, Scrooge McDuck, and Luncheon on the grass with the same enthusiasm, Greg stands out for his sense of composition and framing, as well as the graphic and esthetic quality of his paintings. In his artistic vision, there is zero tolerance for mediocre or imperfect drawings, as shown by the number and size of the artist’s sketchbooks that contain his preparatory drawings. Page after page, his pencil drawing shed light on a talent that rivals the best classical artists.
And with that, Greg also likes challenges and humor, which, you might agree, is quite rare in the contemporary art world where everybody is always so serious. His ambition? Making art accessible to the largest audience, sharing and exchanging with other artists, movements, and creative worlds. Greg has something of a jazzman: free and endowed with an incredible capacity to improvise and adapt. His wish is to be rooted in pop culture, to make room for everyone, and not exclude people by a pseudo-intellectual posture. As a defender of individual and creative freedom, the artist has fully endorsed this declaration by Charles M. Schulz, the inventor of Snoopy: “if I had to make one gift to the next generation, it would be to not take itself too seriously”, and to take that task with the utmost seriousness.
But this doesn’t mean that Greg doesn’t have ideas, far from it. On the contrary, in its own way, his work is an ode to femininity and powerful conquering women. In his work, sexy winks are never just gimmicks. Greg is constantly mocking sexist cliches or prejudices and scolding bad behaviors. Through series that question all sorts of cliches and stereotypes, from the role of women to the American dream, Greg is not afraid to take strong stands. His work expresses his concerns about some social issues, and questions, in his own way, our way of inhabiting the world, living together, consuming, and loving. The images he revisits, reuses, and reappropriates are tools to tackle the various issues that concern him and grab his attention, like the American cancel culture, in the hope to do his bit.
It is through painting that Greg raises awareness. Others are free to comment afterwards. This reflection wouldn’t be possible if Greg’s works didn’t carry meaning, although they never force any message onto the viewer. Like a second kiss-cool effect. Greg is very mindful and draws from the news as much as from his surrounding, his early reading, and other vibrant passions. They might appear simple, but his paintings hide more complex motives, in the spirit of designer Ora-ïto’s “simplixity” concept. Through protagonists inspired by Grimm’s and Andersen’s tales, Disney, Marvel, and Japanese comics, Greg invites us to revisit our childhood. Yet, his world where Batman rubs shoulders with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is far from immature. Although he looks to spark emotion and awakens the child within each adult, he also takes this Proust’s madeleine further. Greg entered the art world by chance, breaking in even. And yet, in a couple of years, he has asserted an original style and produced a few series that have marked our time and will leave a lasting impact. There is no escaping his viral images now!