New York

Gilbert and George

Sonnabend Gallery

Coleridge once observed that while ideas possess most people, few truly possess an idea. Gilbert and George, the “odd couple” among Conceptualists, aspire to proprietorship by dramatizing their idea of being possessed by the idea of art. In the “New Photo-Pieces” their own images are integrated into a series of grids, each composed of nine or sixteen rectangular black and white separate panels (these are unique articles, not an edition, and each separate photograph is individually framed by the artists). Studio portraits of Gilbert and George among the panels bear witness to, but stand a world apart from, the very verité subject matter—seedy slices of urban life, with occasional bucolic interludes (branches, weeds). The studied dignity of their mannekin poses—by now the colophon of their art—sets artifice in self-conscious relief against actuality. Despite their documentary immediacy, these photographic checkerboards resemble nothing so much as early Renaissance altarpieces.

A heiratic organization of images features in each case one key subject which provides the work’s title: some a graffitied word—“Lick,” “Prostitute,” but usually an image—“The Moon,” “Taxi,” “The Branch,” “The Alcoholic,” with numerous predellalike panels providing thematic context or comment, if not narrative continuity. Although all the panels are the same size, many are sections of one continuous image.

Varied scale and patterning of images within the grid subdue the schematic format so prevalent in gridded photographic image “systems” of such Conceptual artists as LeWitt, Huebler and the Bechers. Self-images of Gilbert and George frequently appear flanking the titular panels, photographed and placed so that they seem remotely to be looking in on the subject matter, or vaguely aware of its disposition around them. This and their air of propriety, if not piety, identifies them as “donor figures.”

Traditionally, donor figures are props in devotional altarpiece scenes. Important as portraits of contemporary patrons among conventionalized or anonymous figures, they are, nevertheless, types themselves in terms of their icon-like remoteness from the action around them and their conventional postures of piety. The dual functions of Gilbert and George, iconological as devotional props and authorizing as artists presenting the objects of their devotion, heighten the iconicity of the images in the “New Photo-Pieces” without making them into symbols of some other meaning (as art has traditionally done). The “prop-hood” of Gilbert and George is thus really a proposition: that it is the calling of artists to reconcile art and life without converting life into art or art into life.

Apollinaire once believed that a young artist named Marcel Duchamp would “reconcile art and the people.” Debate continues over whether this became the case. In the case of Gilbert and George, a sincerity detectable in their originality of conception and consistency of approach makes them endearing; their art blunts the anti-art point of aggressive avant-gardism. The “New Photo-Pieces” are important because they convince us that decorum is their demiurge, not irony. Their proplike poses exemplify orderliness and dignity amidst the flotsam of contemporary life. Their artistic intentions seem to be to reveal the order, if not the beauty or meaning, of quotidian ugliness and disarray. Snapshot fragments of obscene graffiti, construction sites, drunks, parks, laborers, cars, passersby become axially symmetrical motifs, emphasizing binary relationships among similar images, inducing strong pictorial gestalts. Some groups of panels within the grids are tinted red, highlighting the balance of the modular components and their decorative patterning, and esthetically distancing the viewer from the often “raw” visual material. But this rigorous pictorial syntax serves less to estheticize the composite tableaux of slangy imagery than to anesthetize us to it.

Finally, it can be argued that Gilbert and George are less possessed by Duchamp than a vernacular constructivist idealism. Ironies ricocheting between “nonart” and “art context” should only be passing references in considering the seriousness of the “New Photo-Pieces.” One suspects that post-Minimal critical thinking may mistake their naive compassion and ceremonializing of life for a manipulation of the art context. The complexity and subtlety of their art notwithstanding, it may be that the innocence of Gilbert and George supersedes their sophistication.

Richard Lorber