Gilbert & George

Appropriately, Gilbert & George’s photo-piece retrospective ends its European tour in the East End of London, not far from the artists’ Fournier Street home, from which the collaboration has been stage-managed for the last 14 years. Around 1968 the posh but dilapidated pair, silly-ass comedians in old school ties, began an energetic expansion of the term “sculpture” by insisting that their every action qualified for the title. Strolling nonchalantly down country lanes, they dedicated themselves to Art and to a life of “artisticness,” basing their satire on the values and beliefs of the middle classes. With a series of works about drinking, the jokes acquired a disturbing intensity, yet between landscape and bar they had set up a pastoral dichotomy that would continue to serve them well. By the mid-’70s, the funniest artists in Britain had turned sour. After the drinking bout came a prolonged hangover. Rolling in paper and debris they grimaced in postures of “human bondage,” surmounted by crosses and swastikas. or wandered endlessly through empty rooms gazing at dark shadows and dusty corners, musing on their imprisonment. Repetition had begun to pall. Their threadbare, nonsensical titles became nursery-rhyme rigmarole, while their poses seemed no more than vacuous and inexpressive masks. After bucolic, alcoholic, and just plain colic, Gilbert & George’s vitriolic period had begun.

Giant photographs, assembled in grids like stained-glass windows, show Blacks, Indians, and Pakistanis, the unemployed queueing in gray crowds, skinheads, dropouts, vacant public spaces, Victorian Gothic skylines, policemen, marching soldiers, and the sculptors themselves, disillusioned and shabby, refraining from comment. As political comment on the state of the nation this work is simplistic and offensive—in Paki (not in the exhibition) the two G’s look down on an immigrant; an antique caricature of a woolly-headed Black is magnified to wall-sized proportions: working-class boys are hailed as “knights,” “patriots,” “angels,” or, in one case, “Britisher.” Women do not appear.

Trapped by their own personae, Gilbert & George have turned into the period gentlemen they once impersonated. Admittedly, prejudices are aired and confronted in Modern Fears and more recent works; but they have not been challenged or overcome. Britain in general is seen in terms of the White-chapel locale—a sordid web of power struggles, the depression relieved by rough trade. Snobbery, lack of human warmth, political naiveté, ambiguous application of obscene language, and above all a spurious concern for the underprivileged, coalesce to form a truly right-wing art, estheticizing and self-indulgent. During the exhibition’s run a prolonged outbreak of rioting, looting, and burning occurred in cities all over the country; art like this can only make matters worse.

Stuart Morgan