When I first stepped into the La Luz de Jesus Gallery, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. It’s not everyday that you see a Ken doll dressed up like the Christian martyr Jesus Christ and nailed to a cross. I couldn’t deny my fascination, as I rounded each corner of the “Barbie, the Plastic Religion” exhibit, and witnessed every little doll tailored to perfection; each toy fully realized as religious icons from varying belief systems. On one wall, there’s a blonde Barbie doll robed from head to toe in delicate hues of blue and gold, made to look like the Virgen de Lyian. On another, there’s a “Barbie Baphomet”, a half human half goat figure resembling the ancient Sabbatic deity which first came into consciousness around the time of the first crusade. As I made my way around the latest exhibit in the Soap Plant Wacko family run shop in Los Feliz, I knew right then and there what I had to do – I had to meet the wonderfully warped minds behind the astounding creations that caked these walls. I had to speak with artists Pool & Marianela.
“We are admirers of scared art in all religions!” exclaims Marianela Perelli excitedly, beaming brightly across the table in her pizza clad ‘Merry Crustmas’ Christmas sweater. Her husband Pool Paolini, who has appointed her the official speaker for both of them because “she knows more English”, sits next to her in a Hawaiian button up tee covered up by a leather jacket, and topped with dark black Ray Bans and white stripes painted through his jet black spiked hair. Every now and then he chimes in to gush over some of his favorite artists, pointing at various pictures on his phone. “Always the religions (especially the Catholic) adapted their figures to the canon of present beauty. That made us think of Barbie, whether we agree or not she is the current model of beauty. That led us to experiment in style, merge Barbie and religion (both number one of popular culture) and that was a maximum attraction”.
Although they are inseparable now, and have been since they first developed their partnership in 2010, individually, the Argentinian born couple have always been interested in the arts in all of its varying forms. Children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, they grew up fascinated with pop culture, worshipping at the alter of icons like Macaulay Culkin and Drew Barrymore, The Ramones, novelist Stephen King, and director John Carpenter.
“We are a little different. Pool likes very lowbrow art and surrealism pop, Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, Robert Williams, Ron English, and his favorite Joe Coleman have been his masters in the process of self-taught” explains Marianela as she picks carefully at her breakfast pastry. “The biggest influence on me is an absolutely bizarre themed park built on a mountain in Argentina Cordoba, called ‘Los Cocos Park’, which is very little known. Toys are our churches and spring of inspiration; we are influenced much more by Coney Island or the Salvation Mountain than the Louvre or the MoMA. We also adore Stephen King, Robert Zemeckis, John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez and George Romero. They influence us much more than plastic artists!”
With such warm and friendly people behind the wheel on these wildly splendid creations, it’s hard to imagine anyone would have a problem with their work. Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case. Because these artists choose to not only display Christian religious icons, but also include figures from Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, Judaism, and so on and so forth, they have experienced some backlash from fans and institutions alike. People tend to misunderstand their meaning, and deem their artwork inappropriate and sacrilegious.
“We do not believe that any religion is more or less important than another. That’s why we include all the figures of all the religions that represent their entities, because we love and respect them” explains Marianela wholeheartedly. “We live in Argentina, where religions coexist in perfect harmony. In our country, the mixture of cultures is perfect and with it comes tolerance and respect. It is rare to find an Argentine who does not mix their religion. Most are Catholics, but many worship figures and teachings of Hinduism or Buddhism. A great percentage has its Orisha side since it is a very popular religion in Brazil and Uruguay. Many of my Catholic friends come to the Feast of Iemanja, and the majority feels sympathy for popular saints like ‘Gauchito Gil’, or ‘San La Muerte’. Many like us have armed their own religion with respect for each and every one of them”.
Hoping to redeem themselves and clean the air of controversy once and for all, the team reached out to the Vatican that had shunned them, explained their artwork in their own words, and were soon invited to not only meet the Pope, but were also allowed to give the man of the cloth one of their very own dolls as a gift, as well.
“In 2014 the worldwide repercussion of the Plastic Religion came to the Vatican, and as it happened all over the world, it was misinterpreted. The holy seat took our work as an offense. In 2016 we decided to contact them, and take our work and deliver it, so that they can have it, analyze it, and appreciate that the work is made with love and respect. They granted us the appointment in the Vatican, and we were able to give it to the Francis Pope and speak a few words with him. To see his smile when he received our Barbie Virgin of Lujan, for us, it was so amazing”.
What started as a sour piece of controversy wound up benefitting the enlightened duo in the end, as it allowed for Pool & Marianela to not only speak with one of the most prestigious authority figures in the world, but to also claim a spot in one of the most iconic museums of all time: The Louvre in Paris, France. As their work gained more of an understanding, and they earned a greater following, they were invited by Mattel and Les Art Decoratifs to present four of their pieces in the museum of decorative arts in the Palais du Louvre, Paris.
“Our experience in the art decoratifs was beautiful, sharing our work with artists we look up to such as Andy Warhol, Mark Ryden, Coco Chanel and Christian Louboutin (and Pool’s favorite, Jeremy Scott!) is enriching and nutritious. Suddenly, people you admire share a room with you! It's very weird. It was shocking that the museum asked for a donation from us. The fact that today there are works of Pool & Marianela in the Louvre / les art decoratifs, including one of our personal favorites, ‘Barbie Saint Genoveva Patron Saint of Paris’, is incredible”.
‘Barbie, the Plastic Religion’ is on display at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery throughout all of December 2016, at the Soap Plant Wacko in Los Feliz, California.