By Robin DuttThis work is a major new monograph on the pair who met at the St. Martin’s School of Art in 1967 while studying Sculpture. The two artists became inseparable, living and working together in their home in London’s East End.
My favourite Gilbert and George work, Cocky Patriot from 1980 wasn’t included in this book. It’s large black and white photograph of a young man flanked by two Union Flags.The young man with an erection visible through his trousers is presented as a homoerotic subject. The period was the heyday of the National Front, which was (with notable exceptions!) homophobic. To me it sums up both their mischievous, wind-up element combined with a social comment. There is always ambivalence. How are we to react to this image which seems intended to both attract and repel?
Another of my favourite images is present in the book, Militant from 1986. It’s similar in a way to Cocky Patriot but depicting ‘Left’ rather than ‘Right’. It’s interesting to compare our reactions to the two.
Gilbert & George have never shied away from dealing with issues:
“Gilbert & George through their career have moved from issues of race, hate, love, sex, nudity, neo-coprophilia, youthquake tremors and so many obsessions besides.” (p.12)
Underlying much of their work is a desire to understand why we are so unhappy in our modern, developed world. Their answer could be summed up in one word: conformity: “the supposed need to conform so as not to confound anyone else, to merge, to meet, to be indistinguishable and so ‘safer’. Gilbert and George believe passionately that changing accepted norms and outmoded values and views may free people to think in a way which liberates entirely.”(p.19)
They have clearly thought about freedom a great deal:
“In the minds of Gilbert & George, freedom is not just the obvious ability to do just as one desires. Interestingly and logically, it is also the ability not to have to do anything. They stress the element of choice; one does not have to believe, to work, to declare one’s sexuality.” (p.38)
The book gives a great insight into the working practises of the artists. As someone who has dabbled in graphic design I was fascinated by their use of grids:
“All colours, all shapes, all patterns are held ‘in place’ by a constant grid which of course divides the image into regular sections but which also acts as support and segment frames and also throws the brightly coloured images which often become symbols, almost in relief. Technically it is impossible to produce their vast imagery without division but this technical reality does not seem to overshadow the creativity of the outcome. They have used the grid in their earliest drawing works too. The grid has come to be their trademark. It is their trademark. It is their formula.”(p.14)
The grids give the appearance of stained glass images so it’s no surprise that they’ve worked in this medium. Much of their art would grace large buildings (but perhaps, given the subject matter, not Cathedrals!) beautifully.
Gilbert and George by Robin Dutt is worth buying just for the question and answer section and the beautiful (if sometimes shocking and controversial) images alone but the opinions of the author also add great insight.
Reviewed by Pat Harrington