San Francisco Fine Arts Museum de Young
February 16, 2008-May 18, 2008
Gilbert & George are idiosyncratic artists who are best known for their gigantic colorful backlit mosaic photomontages, replete with social and political commentary, provocative imagery and portraits of Gilbert & George in various stages of undress. This show, conceived and organized by the Tate Modern, is the first retrospective of these innovative and celebrated artists in more than twenty-five years.
It is difficult to separate the art of Gilbert & George from their persona. When I met them at the de Young Museum, they were both dapperly dressed in almost identical bespoke beige business suits, each with a pen in the suit’s breast pocket, starched white shirts, luscious silk ties and brown Oxford shoes. They are refreshingly honest and surprisingly straightforward about their art and their careers.
It is unclear whether Gilbert & George see their outer lives and their dress as continuations of their art, or whether they are capitalizing on the cult of celebrity, or are merely enjoying the fun of it all. They have never followed art trends and are still smarting over the fact that their work was largely ignored for many years in favor of the minimalist school, which they declared to be dull and arcane. “We lobbied the Tate Modern for this exhibit,” they freely admitted.
Since they met in 1967 at St. Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, one of six colleges in the University of the Arts, London), Gilbert, born in San Martino, Italy in 1943 and George, one year older and from Devon, England, have presented themselves as one artist.
They began as performance artists while still students with the “Singing Sculpture,” in which they dressed in business suits, covered their face and hands in gold metallic paint, stood on a table, and mimed like marionettes to a recording of a popular depression-era song.
They soon tried photography, in part, to document their performance art. Photo-Piece (1971) is an early montage of separate framed small black and white photos in silver frames, of trees and buildings, and of course, of Gilbert & George.
They then moved to rectangular grids of larger black-framed photos, in glossy black, white and red. From there, their art evolved into their large-scale photomontages that are frequently tinted in extremely bright colors, backlit, and overlaid with black grids to resemble stained glass windows, often with mirror image symmetry. They feature more of the front and back of Gilbert & George than we might want to see, along with flowers, graffiti, young men (there are no women in their works), friends, homoerotica, scatological images, obscene words and echoes of religious symbolism.
For many years, Gilbert & George have been living in Spitalfields, in London’s unfashionable East End, which has been populated with successive waves of ethnic groups and young punks. All their imagery is based on photographs they have taken in their neighborhood and are representative of their neighborhood in some way. From these photos, they extrapolate a greater, more symbolic meaning.
Death, Hope, Life, Fear (1984), a quadripartite picture, with each of the four separate parts representing one of the four title words, is an excellent example of their large-scale compositions as well as their matter-of-fact approach to them. At the de Young Museum exhibit, the impressive and effective four pieces were hung on one long wall in this order: Fear, Life, Death and Hope. Much was being made by some observers of the artists’ choice to present Hope as the final piece of the series. But Gilbert & George explained to me that the works could be hung in any order the curator chose; and in fact, the pieces could be placed on separate walls or one long wall, in any order, as space permitted.
Their powerful and wholly serious 2006 piece, Bomb, about the 2006 London tube bombing, returns to their earlier, more somber, darker palette of black, white and red. It is filled with headlines of the event that resemble gravestones—no likenesses of Gilbert & George here.
I was interested in how their relationship to their art has changed since they recently switched to using digital storage for their pictures and digital editing techniques to create their imagery. “We don’t have to stand on ladders anymore,” Gilbert said rather cheekily, referring to the manner in which they used to create their works by moving the component parts around on a large blank wall until they were satisfied with the composition.
“We can create more integrated pieces now,” Gilbert said. He then explained that all their negatives are kept in low-resolution on their super-computer, indexed by subject. They then create their composition on the computer and their assistant scans the photos into high resolution. The pictures are then blown up to their large size.
Gilbert & George believe that “art speaks across barriers of knowledge to people about their life and not their knowledge of art.” Their oeuvre succeeds admirably in this regard, and this exhibition admirably displays their stylistic and emotional progression.