Gilbert & George

  • by Michael Wood, BAR Contributor
  • Sunday March 16, 2008
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If you were to take a quick look at the subjects the notorious British artist duo Gilbert & George have addressed in their pictures - feces, sperm, blood, race, oral fixation, offensive language (to some) and sticking a finger in the eye of organized religion, which it richly deserves, according to the artists - you'd likely conclude that they were naughty boys intent on inciting their teacher to put them out of class and send them directly to the principal's office.

George Passmore and Gilbert Proesch met at St. Martins School of Art in 1967, where they trained as sculptors, and have been fast friends, lovers and artistic conspirators ever since.

Although the bad boys, who are now in their 60s, present an aristocratic, extraordinarily polite, ever-so-English front, their playful, adolescent, make that infantile fixation on heretofore private bodily functions and fluids, and their defiling of what religious institutions hold sacred, is saved for their art. They rather enjoy the fallout; so, let the games begin. Gilbert & George, a retrospective of 50 works which originated at the Tate Modern, is currently on view at the de Young through May 16.

The artists, whose pictures could be called a photography/painting hybrid, are partial to immense floor-to-ceiling triptychs such as their calling card, the infamous "Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit," which pretty much covers the basics of human existence. Moving forward on the biology continuum, "Blood Mooning" features two enlarged microscopic blood droplets and a suited G&G standing next to a naked rear view of them offering the ultimate tribute and, perhaps, expressing a latent interest in science. In the aptly named "Our Spunk," their cells are blown up to the size of doughnuts, and, like the Wizard of Oz peering out from behind the curtain, G&G's darkened, disembodied faces stare at the viewer, set among nude rear and frontal views. No one can say they don't stand behind their work. The recurrent visual theme of the artists' faces, always in tandem, with or without their nude or partially clothed bodies, hark back to their "living sculptures," the marathon "performance" events of their youth, where they dressed in identical suits, painted their faces and caused a sensation in the European art world.

They're inclined to incorporate elements of their life in London's downscale East End. "Three Dozen Streets" and "Twenty-Eight Streets" have row upon row of license plate-sized street names from their neighborhood. The London tube terrorist bombings are reflected in numerous pieces, their titles drawn from real banner headlines used to hawk newspapers: "Terror," "Bombing," "Bomber," "Bombs." Well, you get the idea.

Works such as "Mass 2005," in which a dour-looking G&G, dressed in matching red suits, are at the center of a plethora of crucifixes with "x-ray" images of Jesus hanging from the cross; and "Was Jesus Heterosexual?," which has a similar visual motif and declares, "Jesus Says Forgive Yourself" across the top and "God Loves Fucking! Enjoy" plastered across the bottom, have not endeared them to the clergy. "Antichrist," divided into six panes, shows an upside-down Big Ben reflected in the Thames, and "Living with Fear," which has silhouetted mythical/Biblical figures and an enticing apple on a branch, further speak to the artists' disdain for the fear and shame they believe is instilled by the church.

Cocks are abundant, as they are in life, in the cartoon-style "Thirst," "Hunger" and "Sperm Eaters," whose bright, fire-engine red and yellow "characters" aim for their mouths. George likes to tell a story about a young boy who encountered the latter picture and asked his mother if it was OK to do that. "Yes, darling," she said. "Sometimes it is."

"Winter Flowers," inspired by the death of a beloved poet friend from AIDS, and "Death on Hope with Love," with its pink blooms hovering over three dead tree branches, may be the most poetic images in a show that's likely to inspire a range of contradictory feelings. "Appalled, amazed, emotional," is how one visitor summed up his response.

If the sole function of art is to provoke, the show succeeds; however, controversial content should not deter viewers from evaluating the work on its own merits. This is visual art as theater, informed by eccentric personality. But the ideas are often more impressive and amusing than what's up on the wall. The repetitive use of garish primary colors that the pair call a "democratic palette," and the ubiquitous, kaleidoscope technique will make some visitors feel as if they've entered a 1960s time warp.

Once the initial shock value wears off, you're left - abandoned is the operative thought here - to ponder work that's blunt and without depth, beauty or poetry. It's as if the artists decided that once the audience had been duly tweaked, there wasn't much else for them to do.

Michael Wood is a contributor and Editorial Assistant for EDGE Publications.