GILBERT & GEORGE. Their mural-size images startle and provoke, but do they really deserve `sacred cow' status?
I must admit to a begrudging respect for Gilbert and George. They are obviously dedicated and well intentioned, and they have challenged and enlivened the art world in many interesting ways these past 15 or so years. Their work is highly professional and impressive, and it combines photographic, poster, and painting styles and techniques in an altogether novel manner. Their large photo-pieces are effective in a dramatically coloristic and decorative sort of way, and when it comes to translating ideas into provocative pictorial images, the last decade or so has seldom seen their match. Any exhibition of their work is a visually stimulating event -- as all those viewing Gilbert and George's current Guggenheim Museum retrospective here quickly discover. Beginning at the fourth level of the circular museum ramp, and extending all the way down to and including the rotunda, the visitor is confronted by one huge and aggressively colored picture after another. Each is primarily photographic in derivation, drenched with sharply contrasting colors, and exists to startle, to provoke -- and it is hoped to plant the seeds of a new way of perceiving a hitherto little-examined aspect of contemporary life.Skip to next paragraph
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Whether it does or not is as much up to the visitor at this point as it originally was up to the artists. The organizers of the exhibition -- it was shown originally at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- created what they hoped was the appropriate context by selecting 68 outstanding examples of these artists' work and by then hanging them as effectively as possible. They also helped by producing an illustrated catalog that is extremely valuable for its color reproductions if somewhat less so for its text.
But who are Gilbert and George? Quite simply, they are two Englishmen who met in 1967 when both were art students in London, and who decided almost immediately to fuse their talents and lives to become one artist. Their collaboration has been total, with each sharing equally in the art-making, and both becoming as competent as the other in every aspect of their work.
As Brenda Richardson points out in her somewhat hero-worshipping catalog introduction, ``They are correctly polite to each other at all times; they never interrupt one another, although they often finish each other's paragraphs at alternating sentence pauses; neither is observedly subservient to the other. . . . They work on the same drawing jointly; it is impossible to ascertain uniquely distinguishing features of the hand of either in any given work. . . . They conceptualize in tandem and claim never to reach widely divergent creative resolutions. Each offers constant constructive support to the other. Negative criticism is gently proffered and instantly withdrawn if offense is taken.''
They began their joint career as ``living sculpture,'' gilding or painting themselves, and then posing informally or speaking before audiences in public places. This led gradually to some other art forms, and then, in 1971, to their first photo-pieces.
These are very large, often mural-size works comprising multiple panels combined to create either separate pictorial elements within the image as a whole, or to establish an overall compositional grid-system. Each photo-piece consists of from one to a dozen or more individual items arranged frontally or serially, and it is generally so saturated with starkly contrasting colors as to resemble an oversize, brilliantly hued photo-montage.