British Team Employs Advertising's Tease

Gilbert and George's slick exhibition of `Cosmological Pictures' falls short of its hype

WHEN the American deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman received the commission to design the Koizumi Sangyo Building in Tokyo, he was given one edict: See that it's on the cover of five magazines. "Society," he later noted, "often has no satisfaction from the actual product of labor; people are only interested in the mediated result."

If this is true, it may explain the fantastic success of Gilbert and George, two British artists who met at St. Martin's School of Art in London in 1967, decided to work together, and developed the concept of "living sculpture," that is, artwork with their everyday lives as its basis.

Their "pictures" - colorized photographs cut into tapestry-like pop art collages - are "mediated result" in a pure form. These works breeze through Mr. Eisenman's magazine cover test: Their sheer graphic power makes them highly desirable raw material for layouts. Like excellent advertisements, they're captivating, persuasive, and logolike, establishing a recognizable brand image whose familiarity induces the demand of an eager market.

Another feature borrowed from advertising is that the "product" becomes secondary to the end of promotion: The result - mail-order shoppers will identify - is that it lacks the charge, the potency, of its gloriously multiplied version. In real life, it's just a vegetable chopper, a fat-free fryer, a car wax - in this case a colored-in photo collage.

It's not only superfluous to see Gilbert and George's work in person, it's detrimental to one's appreciation of it. Their recent show at the Secession in Vienna - "New Cosmological Pictures" - was an anticlimax to its own publicity campaign.

On display were 25 images from the year 1989, each bearing a snappy title such as "Look," "Here and There," "Crush," or "Topsy Turvy."

According to the exhibition catalog, they characterize "modern life and the feel of our age," but what they seem to represent is a cross section of the microcosmology that governs the so-called universe of Gilbert and George.

Their use of a specific visual vocabulary presents the viewer with a "...repertoire of `figures' that appear again and again: trees, flower, boy, cloud, building, street, head, and so on."

The "ceremonial symmetry" of the pictures makes many of them seem like mirror images of themselves, and indeed the works - and certainly the catalog - often gave an inbred and vain impression. Perhaps stagnation is the real reason Gilbert and George resort to a Dick-and-Jane format that can accommodate pat truths and fablelike characters.

Symptomatically, the hanging of the "originals" seemed perfunctory and, frankly, of less visual immediacy than the slick reproductions in the exhibition catalog, as though the former were merely unavoidable castoffs left over from the production of the latter.

Though the physical dimensions of the work are formidable (7.5-by-15 feet is not uncommon) all other dimensions - depth, content, atmosphere - remains either entirely elusive or were little augmented by the actual presence of the picture. One is made to feel how flat the images really are, just like the pages of high-gloss magazines.

By subjugating their technique to ideal reproduction requirements as set forth by the media, Gilbert and George are able to optimize the possibilities and use them - at least in those forums - to their advantage.

Apparently, they consider this worthwhile in terms of what they call "getting the message across." To do so, however, is to tacitly accept the significant constraints placed upon the originals themselves. When the message comes across, it comes in telegraph style. The picture, though often witty and dramatic, emits no aura.

Like the twin androgynous suits Gilbert and George always wear, their work - with occasional gratifying exceptions, none of which were in this show - is characterized by the way it repels the viewer from any possible intimacy.

This carefully selected and produced "reality" from Gilbert and George's world is not necessarily the kind of cynicism one would have hoped for from the concept "living sculptures." (The photographer Cindy Sherman also projects "realities" about herself, but she gives us feelings, and not just facade.)

Gilbert and George lead the viewers on, teasing them with some supposed tidbit from their "real lives," while telling gorgeously fabricated lies.

This seems rough treatment from two artists who gush that "every viewer is simply wonderful."

Perhaps Gilbert and George's neighborhood is in the same part of town as Mr. Roger's: They seem to share an emotionless and patronizing tone, an obsession with clothing, and comfort with routine (in their case, the black grid).

"New Cosmological Pictures" gives a grab bag of symbols in all the colors of the rainbow, but fails to convince viewers that the symbols mean anything. "New Cosmological Pictures" will travel to Budapest; The Hague, The Netherlands; Dublin; Barcelona, Spain; Liverpool; and Stuttgart, Germany.

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