BP Nice 1984

Richard Bellon, Renaud Layrac and Frédéric Pohl, all three students at Villa Arson, met in 1981. Shortly afterwards, they decided to work together. This artistic collaboration came into effect three years later, when they exhibited a first collective work entitled Monochromes. The three double glazed window panes which make up this work each contain the same quantity of motor oil with different characteristics. From that time on, the three artists will present themselves under the generic name BP. Obviously, the collusion which rapidly appears in the group’s evolution between industrial matter (machine oil) some accessories related to it (metallic drums, security-rods, petrol pumps, etc.) and a logo uniting them, is immediately interesting, albeit via a sort of obvious confidence trick, and emphasized in a playful mode. Within a totally referential context, BP is also stimulating through the ambivalence it maintains with the logo of the multinational group British Petroleum, especially with the inclusion of the BP logo in its work. BP fascinates by the very strict restraints deliberately imposed on itself to enter into the art field. According to this apparently dialectical approach, the group turns these two joined letters (B.P.) into an artistic manifesto which it intends to pursue within art-world rules.

Even to-day, although the BP cell has split away from one of its members(Richard Bellon left the group in 1990), it remains true to its original wager. Its visual vocabulary employs, more than ever, the industrial ingredients upon which the group based its reputation. Machine oil seen as an advantageous substitute for paint, covers bits of crushed steel taken from car wrecks or is used to provide a screen on showcases in which are displayed police sirens and the heads of mannikins generally employed to study accident probabilities. At first sight, these works seem to be more openly turned towards a dramatic background, although they maintain formal links with their predecessors, especially within the creative process set up by the group.

The artist and the group

However, before elaborating further on the production methods of the BP « enterprise », it would be good to examine the question of the group, for if there is one question more or less well understood within the framework visual art, it is that of a community of creation by several individuals. For, traditionnally, the artist is regarded as a world unto himself, fortified by his perception. The amateur, on the other hand, cannot go against this tragic nature which is beyond him, at best he has an awareness of it as a sort of mirror which guides him into his own darkness. There is a faint whiff of sacrifice in this hardly exaggerated view of the artist’s genius. As far as he is concerned, the artist would be ill advised to negate this statement of facts. Since he has been emancipated, and has emerged as a fully fledged intellectual, he is perceived as the motor of creative evolution. At the crossroads of celestial and earthly forces he is putting his footsteps in those of Herakles. As opposed to this somewhat classical image of the artist, and yet still very much of our time, what genius can we find in a group of artists who decided to work together on a same undertaking under a single name? The answer will no doubt be fraught. One can easily conjecture that the group under consideration will be cast a somewhat distracted glance, beyond the validity of the zeitgeist, in other words, a certain flair to capture the moment’s spirit. Apart from the objections raised above which lead to a creator’s imperious individualism, the first reason for this judgement will aim at proving that two different personalities working together towards a common goal can only cancel each other out. According to this somewhat moralistic logic, it might then be a question at best, of a sort of inevitable consensus in the creative process, at worst of a kind of horrible trompe-l’oeil as opposed to a genuine visual thought process.

The group as artistic event

However, since the advent of modernism, this idea of communal work in wich BP finds its place has been periodically and openly questioned. It would be extremely presumptuous to provide here even a curtailed summary, nonetheless in order to better situate its tenets, it is essential to provide examples. Let us start with one of the most famous collaboration between two artists, unquestionably that between Braque and Picasso, during what art history is pleased to call « the invention of Cubism ». In this purely visual adventure, and if we admit the word invention, who nowadays could determine which of the two painters engendered Cubism? Researchers are still asking themselves questions concerning works which might indifferently be attributed to one or the other. Why not openly acknowledge the privileged moment, the indeterminate moment, the event of a creation under the auspices of the third person, building up on the basis of an ongoing exchange between the two artists? A similar remark for artistic episodes like Dada and International Situationism, even if these « collectives » were in answer to strongly charged ideological passwords. Here the individualistic and thereby, sublime, side of the artist was peremptorily put down as being the monstrous survival of bourgeois culture. Artistic creation was thus openly turned towards an analytical dialogue concerning its own practices. And in the sixties and seventies, from Vienna to New York, many rallied to this critical outpouring with different reasons, even if for many of them this « community episode » was only an interlude, merely a stepping stone, in the achievement of a totally classical solo career.

However, the group in its very foundations should be taken as a wellspring of meetings in which different personalities meet up, who all of them admit to perceiving a break in the order of creation in which they wish to gather together so as to constitute a pole, a cell. And can it really be chance if artists choose moments of intensive self-doubt regarding the future of art in order to band together? In fact, we should congratulate ourselves that the eighties produced a number of couples or groups of artists. Far from being the avowal of creative emptiness on the artists’ part or of a gimmick due to the period, these meetings should rather be seen from the angle of resistance faced with conservative habits or willpower. What is more, rather than being this annhilation mentioned above, artistic association will be the promise of an accumulation built around a reflective attitude in which the work would surpass all else. As regards BP for instance, it would be quite pointless to try and determine the main influence of one member of the group on the other by looking at a piece, and at that game, the artists themselves would be unhelpful, for without really hiding, they know how to retrench behind the moral reason which the group represents ; BP guarantees their individuality.

The song of the logo

From that point of view BP’s practice is exemplary, even including the use of the logo which is regularly to be found constituting the work as much as grease oil. This logo looks like a spiral. At one extreme, it is the commercial brand-name, known world-wide, at the other it is the highly visible sign of an artistic group whose members do not want to appear under their own name. Between these opposites, the BP logo swings toward the first premise of an analogy with the industrial world, and the decisive element of a simulation which plays with the mechanistic image-making conjured up by the oil firm. This way of appearing as though involved in a vulgar pretence and as if the works belonged to an overly determined context, without shedding light by means of this operation, results in the works being turned inside out. Apart from the fact, that such an undertaking imitates the methods which advertising loves to use (a brand, a product, linked by a clever slogan), it also incrcases the work’s subversive charge which appears to hesitate between various appearances regarding its content. In that case, the barrel with the BP (the company’s) logo installed on a metallic pedestal which was exhibited in 1988 in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tourcoing is a prime example, for this piece contains both the characteristics of the BP promotional object, and those of a BP sculpture. Only the machine oil which flows imperceptibly along the sides of the pedestal inclines us to put this piece alongside works of art.

Modernity and index of viscosity

Whether it has to do with forms of modern art or with a reality beyond art, machine oil – synthetic oil – is a kind of gauge. In the same way that economists speak of oil equivalents to produce a relationship between two values, BP calls Oil Painting (1986), a painting made which machine oil flows endlessly via an electrical pump. By painting utilizing oil, painting is summoned up like a corpse – a sort of fuelled painting – wich reads like a profession of faith towards a type of expression wich no longer offers interesting outlets. After this episode, experienced as a dead end, BP undertook to explore the bounds of sculpture through the same medium. Once again, machine oil is wonderful with ist avowed visual qualities (depth of black, smoothness and fluditiy of its consistency, light-reflecting properties which attract in spite of its repulsive smell). The onlooker gets lost in formal games about containers and contained, and tries to reconstruct the forms spread out under the layers of oil. There are numerous refcrences here to modern visual approaches: here is Malevitch’s black square, there is a reminder of brancusi’s endless column, or another column-fountain entitled Babel (1987) with oil spilling over into the corrugatcd tin held between drums. Furthermore, it is true that machine oil, beyond its purely visual qualities, turns out to be a symbolically very rich material. It only needs the introduction of the notion of ritual, for instance, which BP explores in its recents works to glimpse the simultaneously emblematic and tragic part wich can be extracted from this synthetic liquid, as much by opposing to sacramental oil, a symbol of purity, as in its deviation in the modern in which mechanisation, technicity, performance are tutelary values.

Generic images

Whether through the choice of its logo, by its formal references or, more prosaically, through its choices of materials in the industrial world linked to automobiles, BP has always utilized salvage as a means toward creation. BP has been employing this method whith a great deal of distancing by suggesting side-issues, according to the modern principle which maintains that all forms nowadays belong to those who know how to seize them, and knowing that art is no longer the first perimeter in which form is spelled out. After the accumulated, collected jerrycanes, introducing the notion of a layout as useless as it is initiatory, after tracing the Formula 1 circuits cut out in metal, then reducing them to poor mobiles, after the checkered flag of the competition bas heen utilized like a negative/positive on easily identifiable images, this time, BP seems to be taking a less obvious route, while at the same time objectifying its suhject. These mannikin heads, these sirens, even if they are part of the same collection of generic images usually employed by BP, possess a heightened emotional impact, their later settings, instead of minimizing this effect, increase them.

BP as a dual constraint

As the memhers of BP admit, they bave gambled their all on a single gesture.They have provided themselves with a narrow framework for their creativity, in order to strengthen the circuit which constitutes the group. Nowadays,BP are ten years old, and their conviction concerning the artist’s status is less prevalent than in their early days. However, as before, each has his own space in the studio. They know what they must accomplish between two projects to be discussed, when the first one who suggests an idea, must convince the other of its validity. Time for discussion, time for thought, each one distances himself from his personal tastes, masters his thinking within the viewpoint of a seamless collaboration, a successful exchange upon which the validity of the work to come must depend. Beyond the first restraint imposed by their narrow visual frames of reference, there is a second one, which is the attentiveness to the other one within the group, because, as well as the work strictly speaking which they endorse like every artist, they have another entity to preserve, a sort of moral person: BP.

Hervé Legros

Mai 1994

Translation Ann Cremin

in catalogue BP, Galerie Louis Carré & Cie, 1994