BY Gareth Jones in Reviews | 05 MAY 93
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Issue 10

Gilbert & George

BY Gareth Jones in Reviews | 05 MAY 93

Living sculptures Gilbert & George famously began their career under the slogan 'Art for All.' Their populism shows no sign of abating: its latest manifestation, a ten date tour of 25 large works, travelling around a newly expanded Europe, is perhaps the most ambitious to date. Arriving at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool on the last leg of their journey, The Cosmological Pictures overlapped with an exhibition of more recent work in London. A poster campaign for the latter - the New Democratic Pictures - dropped its title in favour of the more direct 'Art Exhibition': research has shown that this wording is the most likely to attract a non-art public in off the streets. Successful or not, the gesture implies a return to first principles.

It is a commonplace to observe that Gilbert & George's pictures are inseparable from the persona they have constructed for themselves, but it is rare to hear the implications of this developed, or located within a wider artistic context. Their attempt to broach the art/life divide is more often discussed in terms of the specific iconography employed in a given work. The centre-piece of The Cosmological Pictures (1989) is Topsy Turvy, a vast 60 panel tableau containing the familiar elements of their world: inner city vistas, plant life, urban youth and, of course, themselves. Broadly legible, offering narrative possibilities in place of a specific reading (the bottom line, surely, of an 'Art for All'), it is nevertheless dominated by our perception of Gilbert & George as artists. Life enters art, in terms of imagery, but art seeps into life in the shape of the formally dressed artists.

At the centre of their persona lie the sober 'responsibility suits,' signifiers of both a heightened seriousness and the sublimation of individual desires to a joint sense of purpose. The suits, like the fastidious attention to manners and courteous behaviour, draw on a recognisably English pre-war vernacular. Its subsequent confrontation with the reality of late 20th century urban life is still provocative, animating the recent pictures. In Smoke Rising their respectable image frames some large dog turds on a pavement, broken windows and a burning building. If for one moment we were to doubt the seriousness of their belief in those suits, the tension of the combination would dissolve. Skyers also mixes the social with the biological: a skyline of trees is joined back-to-back with one of city buildings, forming a band across the artists' waists. Circular apertures - glory holes? - open around their besuited crotches, but the mechanics of 'skying' are never specified (judging by his expression, Gilbert seems to prefer it.) The centrality of the sex drive in Gilbert & George's cosmology seems pertinent to the moment.

Over the last decade, staging the self for the camera has become a recognised sub genre of contemporary art, and nudity on gallery walls comes as no surprise. In the New Democratic Pictures (1991) at Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Gilbert & George appear naked for the first time. But viewed in the wider context of their career, this development generates different resonances: the absence of the suits becomes as significant as the presence of their naked bodies. Reborn in birthday gear, they continue their stated aim to be as honest as possible in communicating their vision of life 'as it is.' Urinal, in its conflation of cathedral interior, public lavatory and nude artists, is a flagrantly democratic image.

It has been said before that the worst nightmare of the dandy would be to wake up in public naked, bereft of his hard earned identity. The reference, carrying an unpleasant whiff of 19th century aestheticism, may seem incongruous alongside Gilbert & George's avowed sense of moral purpose - their desire to shape life rather than reflect it. In an intelligent account of the New Democratic Pictures, Andrew Wilson writes that 'they have eschewed the world of the dandy and Baudelairian wanderer for something altogether more vital.' However, there remains a useful point of comparison. For the artist steeped in the lore of dandyism, actual artworks may only serve as accessories to the more elaborate (and therefore taxing) creation of an artistic persona. In the late 60s, when they declared their thoughts and actions artworks ('living sculpture'), Gilbert & George attempted a parallel fusion of art and life: it was rightly viewed in relation to the radical artistic enquiries of the time, such as anti-form and conceptualism. Although their persona now exists more forcibly as a representation - recorded in increasingly monumental pictures - the boundaries remain as blurred as before, whether naked or clothed.