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Gilbert & George

English, born 1942 (George) and born Italy 1943 (Gilbert)

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From the outset of their joint career, Gilbert and George explored and redefined picture making while bridging the gap between art and life. Dressed in suits and often displaying decorous manners, the duo presents an image at odds with the unconventional sincerity with which they expose desires and fears. Documenting the reality of daily existence through the lens of their unique sensibility, the artists present a poignant and all-embracing vision of life that is constantly aware of changes in the social and political climate. They address head-on the burning issues of our times--be they social marginality, religion, the AIDS crisis, or multiculturalism--while at the same time defining a distinctive visual language.

The duo began their career in the late 1960s as performance artists, presenting themselves as "living sculptures." They also proclaimed other aspects of their artistic practice to be sculpture, including the postcards that they regularly distributed by mail. These postcards, photographs of the artists in various performative settings, portraying mostly bucolic landscapes and an abhorrence of drunkenness, were gradually replaced by commercially printed postcards, assembled in graphically bold compositions they called "postcard sculptures." Originally, these collages of readymade images were smaller in scale, with six to twelve carefully selected old postcards arranged in various configurations.

In the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, these postcard sculptures became increasingly larger, including as many as three dozen individual postcards, which the artists were buying by the handful from souvenir shops. These arrangements were occasionally limited only to two different images, placed in strict geometrical order and forming the grid system that became quintessential to all of their photo-pieces. The glossy quality of the commercial postcards and the boldness of their colors also translated well into these larger photographic pieces. Indeed, photography opened up an entire world of images to Gilbert & George, who were searching for methods to bring all aspects of life into an aesthetic structure that would allow them to pursue their vision of "Art for All."

Gilbert & George's art of the late 1970s is characterized by a dark mood and an introspective examination of daily anxieties. Their state of mind in the Dead Board series of 1976 is hopeless and gray. The Red Morning series of 1977 explores their sense of desperation while formally establishing their standard mural-sized grid format. The color red, used extensively by the artists in reference to the darkroom process of developing photographs, has symbolic associations with blood, love, hate, and anger, and appears prominently in the works of that period. The self-portraits of Gilbert & George clad in white shirtsleeves, without their trademark tweed suit jackets, although still formal, mark the subjects as particularly vulnerable, both physically and mentally.

In the early 1980s, Gilbert & George dramatically expanded their palette to include yellow, green, violet, orange, pink, and gold. The series of photo-pieces that emerge during this vibrant period display a heightened reality, moving away from the earlier naturalism. Although images of youth, vagrants, and street characters were present in earlier pieces, in the 1980s the artists started employing models in their increasingly ambitious compositions in which numerous figures appear in complex tableaux. These colorful and effervescent series of works ended abruptly in 1984 with the onset of the AIDS crisis. The photo-pieces of the following years depict Gilbert & George alone again, paralyzed with anxiety and isolated from the rest of the world.

In the late 1980s, the duo created their last two series of postcard works, Worlds and Windows, which assumed monumental dimensions. In Blue World (1989), more than one hundred identical postcards of Indian screen idol Govinda alternate with a banal seascape turned on its side and an architectural view of a temple-like structure, to create a dizzying visual tapestry. The intense repetition of the movie star's face gives the montage the aura of an altar, presenting him both as a pop culture icon and a quasi-religious persona. At the same time, the mosaic pattern created by the arrangement of the postcards places the individual images in service to the larger pulsating, cinematic composition.

Early in their career, Gilbert & George created a series of drawings and paintings in which they placed themselves in the English countryside communing with nature. These pastoral settings are unique in the artists' work, as they later portrayed themselves exclusively in urban contexts. Natural elements do appear in these later compositions, however, and refer to beauty and the process of growing, maturing, and transforming. Flowers, fruits, trees, and blossoms are all representative of the cycle of life.

In Red Morning Drowned (1977), the silhouettes of trees against threatening skies speak of anxiety and depression but also of hope and future redemption. The Rose of Destruction (1980) presents us with a monumental view of a flower admired for its vibrant color but neutralized by Gilbert & George in their black-and-white depiction. Here, the rose symbolizes the often-discordant consequences of passion, love, and friendship. The inflamed full moon of Night Attack (1982) suggests the anguish and fear related to modern urban life. And Seven Heroes (1982), with youths surrounded by floral patterns that become symbolic coats of arms, celebrates the innocence of the young men while emphasizing their vulnerability within the unwritten rules of society.

In Berries (1986), Gilbert & George add religious connotations to natural elements. The picture's resemblance to a stained-glass window of a church is emphasized by the penitent position assumed by Gilbert next to a larger-than-life George. Red berries and green leaves form the background. In popular folklore, berries are a symbol of life and blood. In Gilbert & George's composition, they allude to the Christian rituals of confession and communion associated with renewal and revival. A symbol of maturity, the ripe fruit signals the coming of age of the artists, who at this point are approaching middle age. They depict themselves lightly poised on a cloud of berries, where they continue to engage, tenderly and passionately with the tribulations of the human condition.

Notations: Gilbert and George, 2008

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