London

Gilbert & George

Serpentine Galleries

Gilbert & George began as “living sculptures,” confounding the seemingly self-evident distinction between artist and object. Even since their work took a primarily photographic form three decades ago, its central trope has remained their own emblematic presence. So one of the most striking aspects of “The Dirty Words Pictures,” 1977, is how understated the presence of the artists’ image is in comparison with the work that led up to and follow edit—even on a quantitative level. In eighteen of the twenty-six works, each member of the partnership is present in just one out of the sixteen or twenty-five gridded panels of black-and-white imagery. Instead, the emphasis is on the world that surrounds them—the run-down, desperate world of punk-era London, with its broken windows and rubbish-strewn sidewalks, where strangled emotions are scrawled in the graffiti that runs across the top or bottom of each grid and provides its title, such as Bugger, Cunt, Fucked Up, or one that sounds like it should have been the title of a Sex Pistols song, Are You Angry or Are You Boring? The London depicted here is so richly multiracial that it’s vaguely surprising not to find any racism expressed in the scrawls Gilbert & George recorded, but homophobia speaks its name loud and clear: This is a city in which Queer and Bent count as “dirty words.” Amid all this the artists lurk as shadowy presences, looking pensive and troubled—they are not objects, as they had once presented themselves, but rather witnesses.

In 1972 Robert Pincus-Witten had distinguished Gilbert & George’s brand of “Conceptual performance” from Vito Acconci’s in terms of the former’s appeal to the “experiences of the senses” over the “processes of the mind,” tracing the English duo’s work “back to the European Dadaistic experience . . . which mixed together sociological, political, and economic commentary realized in Futurist and Cubist modes.” The citation of Cubism might have seemed puzzling at the time, but five years later these “Dirty Words Pictures” showed just how astute Pincus-Witten’s observation had been. The revised relation to everyday life epitomized by the incorporation of bits of newspaper in Cubist works—and the revised relation between the activities of reading and seeing that this demanded—are key to these pictures as well. So is the way a sense of reality has to be reconstituted from a heap of insignificant fragments. The individual frames within “The Dirty Words Pictures” tend to be incommunicative, their formal and social content indeterminate. Only in the monumental compositional context of the whole does the meaning of the parts become clear: in the play of symmetry and contrast; the flow of chiaroscuro lending subtlety and variety to the bedrock solidity of the post-and-lintel structure, which curator Lisa G. Corrin correctly identifies as fundamental to the works’ construction and which is often underlined by tinting certain frames red in symmetrical patterns; the tension between the grid’s pull toward the surface and the imagery’s limited opening up into depth, and so on. More than a decade after the Minimalists made “composition” into something of a dirty word in the realms of painting and sculpture, it shows its worth here. Corrin mentions that the artists used detailed preparatory drawings to organize these “complex and elaborate visual fugues.” If these drawings couldn’t be exhibited—and the show’s dense, implacable hanging left little room for more—they should at least have been reproduced in the catalogue. These “Dirty Words Pictures” deserve to be studied in depth and that includes their underlying method.

Barry Schwabsky