New York

Gilbert and George

Sonnabend Gallery downtown

Consistency is hardly an issue, but if you’re to take Gilbert and George at their word their latest show is a lot of rubbish. Calling their new work “Modern Rubbish” is typical of their ambivalent stance which, on the one hand, mocks the art system and yet, on the other, profits by being taken seriously by it. Using Gilbert and George’s language, I would say as a preface to my comments their work has never kept me awake at night breathless with a love of art waiting to see their next move. Sociologically, however, their position is not without interest. For in an art world bent on creating a mythic smokescreen around the making, promoting, and selling of art objects, they succeed while accepting all this in still making fun of the situation. My kind of fun is not in their vaudeville and nostalgic areas, but I recognize people have different needs. Culturally another country’s nostalgia is more acceptable than your own, and for this reason alone Gilbert and George’s photographic mementos of English pub life may have a particular significance for the inveterate pub-crawler.

Being less than lukewarm about Gilbert and George’s actual artworks—as opposed to their performances—I was pleasantly surprised to find aspects of this work interesting. Before I could do this, however, I had to get past the tedium of multiple self-portraits of Gilbert and George dressed in what used to pass in a less critical era for anonymous elegance, standing in Pinocchio poses, and wearing expressions normally associated with the stunned or the insane. Once I could get used to seeing these endless portraits merely as design elements—made easier in “Modern Rubbish” by the fact most of the photographs are deliberately out-of-focus, and once I ignored the banality of titles like Rather Sporty, The Secret Drinker, and To Her Majesty which are just too close to the worst aspects of hangover Edwardian life to be funny, there was a certain outrageousness to the layout of the work, showing a healthy disregard for the whole history of Western art. The mix of referential images with nonreferential shapes of the display forms Gilbert and George used were just nutty enough to be interesting. Combining photographs of themselves with bar interiors and scumbling them with devices borrowed from the early history of photography like blurred focus, vignettes, and photograms, Gilbert and George combine them with outlandish arrangements of photographs, some occupying whole walls. One, for example called London Fog is about 35’ long. Sometimes these arrangements, each made up of a number of different scale and shape photographs, are abstract, as in The Secret Drinker with its three huge crosses formed by photographs edge to edge of Gilbert and then George alternating with suitably secret bar interiors; other times they’re trivially figurative as with The Glass, with its photographs nodding in the direction of Victorian kitsch, forming just that—a glass. Other arrangements are harder to place, but look like basic design exercises gone mad. Autumn Ferns with its hand-scale slablike portraits of Gilbert and George framed by photogrammed ferns is like this. It looks like an optical painting whose elements have decided to leave the canvas and instead move rapidly across the wall. London Fog by contrast has a stained-glass Art Déco look to it. What’s interesting is by approaching academic object-making—and these objects in many senses are as conventional as you can get—from a different tack, Gilbert and George have come up with interesting visual phenomena. Their problem is even if the work is interesting it’s always compromised by the necessity to be camp. And their kind of camp is not only a very parochial one, but it’ severely limits the life-span of the works.

Gilbert and George, however, are not really as interesting for their artworks as for their celebrity status. And celebrities, as Daniel Boorstin in his The Image points out, are well known for being well known. Celebrities are not plagued by the quality but the visibility problem. It doesn’t matter what they do as long as it’s known. And it’s a tautological tactic Gilbert and George have carried off with remarkable skill. What they’ve done is parlayed a self-image which they’ve made easily identifiable, infinitely repeatable into a saleable commodity. I don’t think it’s rampant narcissism, but a calculated extension on their part of the “Don’t-worry-about-the-art-send-me-the-artist” syndrome. Gilbert and George, it must be remembered, made their break in the late ’60s at the height of Minimalism—an essentially personality-starved movement. They also plugged into the mailing tactic of Conceptual art with their “Art For All” mailing strategy—used initially so successfully by Seth Siegelaub—and in so doing temporarily bypassed the gallery system. For me this is their significance. Significant also is their use of their name as an advertising slogan, like the airline ads “Fly Linda” or “Fly Barbara” where, apart from sexual overtones, a person is a surrogate for a plane. As the title “Gilbert and George” is a similar surrogate perhaps I’m being unreasonable even mentioning their art objects.

James Collins