Mega! What an apt, often British exclamation to describe something that is really huge or really good. Gilbert & George’s THE BEARD PICTURES is both and more. In fact, “mega” is understatement for this 50th anniversary show of shows, which will be seen in six cities between now and March 2018.
Since the artists began their collaboration 50 years ago, collectors, curators and critics alike have struggled with Gilbert & George’s work, trying to decide—if that were possible—if the work was offensive, progressive or anarchic. It is all of this, and it seems difficult at times to reconcile Gilbert & George’s imagery and sometimes-unprintable texts (in mainstream publications) when you know they are avowed Conservatives with a capital “C.” Gilbert & George said their identification as Conservatives was like signing a death certificate; this is so contrary to the notoriously conformist and liberal art business. But, as they observed, “if the essence of the art world is originality, why do they [artists] all have the same political opinion? They are socialists who want to be rich.” If Gilbert & George are to be believed as authentic—and why not?—their art is intentionally democratic, art for all and everyone, not for an elite.
Michael Bracewell, British novelist and essayist, has been a friend, daresay an acolyte, of Gilbert & George for 20 years. His new book, What Is Gilbert & George?, is as much love letter as it is non-fiction. The book adds enormous clarity about the artist duo, distilling motive, thought and action. As Bracewell explains it, “Gilbert & George maintain an ideological opposition to art theory and their reference of art to the history or theory of art.” In one sentence, he serves up Gilbert & George, anti-elitist, working class monarchist artists, on an Asprey of London silver platter. Gilbert & George are consummate anti-academic heroes to anyone—many anyones—who believes that an abstract painting or steel sculpture has any relevance to a majority of people stumbling upon or over modern art.
In New York, this mega exhibition of 35 works (in a staggering 172-work series) is presented at Lehmann Maupin’s two locations. All of the works are humongous, fearlessly bright, mixed media photographic panels. They use a design system they perfected in the early 70s. (When Gilbert & George realized that people admired their drawings as drawings—that is, as art—they stopped making them.) Since then they have energetically used emerging technologies to collect and categorize their data—largely images—and to create their work. Gilbert & George have never wavered from a 1970 text that was featured in Three-part Charcoal Paper Sculpture, “To Be With Art Is All We Ask”:
Oh Art, what are you? You are so strong and so powerful, so beautiful and so moving. You make us walk around and around, pacing the city at all hours, in and out of our Art for All room.
To understand the series, see it at both venues, starting at the Chrystie Street location. The cavernous main gallery has eight works; the viewing room has four. Manipulated images of Gilbert & George stare out, their eyes burning, seeing through and beyond the viewer. The atmosphere is Orwellian with two big brothers watching. The imagery deployed by Gilbert & George is largely familiar: East London neighborhood flora, religious icons (staffs and serpents), and lots and lots of alarm boxes, chain link fencing and barbed wire, their newer obsessions.
The Chrystie Street gallery is chapel-like with the works hung like opaque stained glass windows, depicting the stories of the two-in-one artist. Gilbert & George love stained glass windows precisely because they originally depicted the ordinary “like a newspaper or children’s storybook for people who cannot read. Instead of Jesus we have ourselves in them.” The presentation is exceptionally well-conceived. The longer you linger, the more the details emerge. The details—alone and in combination—are intended to “disrupt certainty.” The works in the upstairs viewing room are better scaled to the low ceilings. They are less intimidating, but darkly humorous and lovingly sinister in a Charles Addams way.
Twenty-three works crowd Lehmann Maupin’s West 22nd Street space. The look and feel is a “similar but different show.” The consistency is there; the atmosphere is different, verging on cluttered. It is easy to pick out a favorite like BEARD HELP (2016), a visual collage of Gilbert & George among the psychics’ and sex workers’ business cards often posted in British telephone booths. Then another work grabs you, like the bushy-bearded artists standing among dot matrix bus stop signs in BEARD STOPS (2016). Ask to look at a catalog and read the artists’ annotations. They clarify things, especially British things.
Bracewell writes, “the art of Gilbert & George has always invited the viewer, intimately and forcefully, to search for and question their own truth, and find their own answers.” While this may be a sort of a universal intention of any art, Gilbert & George touch something extremely personal in their shameless revelations. Everyone thinks about sex and politics, Gilbert & George celebrate them both, exploring the paradox between thinking and doing. It is art of the times.
The tableaux Gilbert & George designs are neo-Hieronymus Bosch representations of contemporary London’s history and life. They are very particular to the evolution of and shifting demographics in Spitalfields, an area of East London where Gilbert & George had lived since 1968. The neighborhood has morphed from a destination for Calvinist refugees in the 1680s, to Jewish enclave, to the current Bangladeshi community. Gilbert & George make no judgment about the arc of change and transformation. The beard motif can be “linked to history, hipsters, heroes and religion.” This is obvious. But seen another way, any beard could be used as a mask or disguise, a convenient appliance to help a jester or rogue to disappear in a crowded London street.
When visiting the gallery, take away a checklist and Bracewell’s exhibition essay. The latter is an adjective rich decodification, which is almost as heady as the pictures themselves. For even more information, visit http://www.gilbertandgeorge.co.uk/.
At Lehmann Maupin, 536 W. 22nd Street and 201 Chrystie Street, New York.