Gilbert & George

Galerie Ascan Crone

Anyone who asked about the inclusion of women in “Art for All” might well have received a laconic retort from Gilbert & George: the pair would as soon have a fridge in their pictures as a woman. (These words were reported during the artists’ mammoth retrospective that traveled across Europe in 1986–87.) The new paintings (all works 1988) are still devoid of fridges. Instead, we find squeaky-clean female hustlers with skeptically yearning eyes (Being), and sumptuous panicles and umbels against a postcard-azure sky (Loves). We also see the two doyens of living sculpture in various leafy settings. In Pains, they scream while standing amid blue-and-red veined leaves: in Sting-Land, they gaze across radiant verdure, as proud and serious as the owners of a tradition-laden plantation. As usual, these photo pieces—are symmetrical, for, according to this artistic duo, life is symmetrical.

Indeed, Gilbert & George have always been traditionalists, distrusting the avant-garde label. Twenty years ago, when they first performed their two-man shows, they were among the first artists to experiment with self-reflexiveness. They wanted to find a way of getting one step closer to experience without producing a mimetic picture of reality. Their huge photo assemblages twist the old Albertian notion of the painting that opens like a window. These are closed windows, which dominate the viewer—windows from which the artists look at the spectator.

In their sculptures—the term they apply to all their works, whether films, books, or photo pieces—nothing moves. Nor does anything blossom: the flowers look artificial and that’s as it should be. Art has to be artificial, say Gilbert & George. No melody resounds, and that’s also as it should be: Gilbert & George hate music, because they generally disapprove of anything that “allows people to escape from reality and from the better, truer understanding of themselves.”

And that’s their big mistake. With their “Art for All,” they underestimate the viewer’s need for freedom. If Gilbert & George could forget about their misguided attempt to improve the world through art, they could focus on their truer identity as eccentric artists who have succeeded by making themselves the object of the picture. Theirs was a great, bold leap in its time. Gilbert & George’s early photo sequences (Dark Shadow, 1974; Bloody Life, Bad Thoughts, Dusty Corners, 1975; Dead Boards, 1976) testify to a new realism, one fraught with carefully wrought nuances of meaning. These nuances have been lost in the subsequent garish works, which pounce on the viewer like posters and spotlights. The latest pictures simply intensify the gaudiness, without really adding anything new.

Doris Von Drateln

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel