October 31, 2008
“Gilbert and George are taking the piss, aren’t they?” asked Billy Bragg on his song Take Down the Union Jack. It’s a pertinent question, but not the only conundrum surrounding the notorious but much loved artistic double act. Since meeting at St Martins College in London in the late ’60s, Gilbert and George have led a confounding, contradictory existence. At once remarkably transparent — presenting themselves as “living sculptures,” with their matching suits and exclusive artistic focus on their own bodies and the half-mile area surrounding their shared East London home — and frustratingly enigmatic, their works are intimate yet commercial, offering wry social commentary in the same breath as scatological schoolboy humor.
The recently opened Brooklyn Museum retrospective of the duo’s career is a visceral, an occasionally overwhelming experience — filling an entire room, their trademark vividly colored grid photographs glow like stained glass windows in some profane cathedral. The works are presented un-chronologically, but it is not difficult to date each piece. The mid-to-late ’70s grid images share a subdued color palette, all monochrome reds and grays, as in the elegiac Mental series (1976) or the graceful England (1980). Through the ’80s and into the ’90s the aesthetic becomes louder, brasher and camper, bold bright friezes of multi-ethnic London boys and urban artifacts. Their most recent work, meanwhile, sees the ever-contrary pair ditch crisp lines and clean graphics for garish photo-manipulation, gaudy typefaces and unwieldy composition in a manner rather worryingly reminiscent of Pen and Pixel hip-hop CD covers.
Relief comes in the form of smaller scale creations such as the sad Dusty Corners (1975) and Dead Boards (1976) series, low-key postcard sculptures like the romantic Photo Piece (1971) and weary, witty odes to drinking like the melancholy Gin and Tonic (1973). They are a necessary reminder that, behind the high concept wackiness, there is a pair of humans — bizarre, obtuse, frequently taking the piss, but humans nonetheless.