Bring me sunshine - Gilbert and George at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

This article is from 2010.

Gilbert and George

A look at the history of the art duo

Dubbed the Morecambe and Wise of modern art, Gilbert and George have straddled the decades, their eccentric veil never dropping for a second. Bidisha considers the pair who sidestepped misogyny to focus on the beauty of flawed males

Fashion fades but style endures, opined Yves Saint Laurent. It’s a dictum that artists Gilbert and George may well have borne in mind through their long and remarkably steady career. The G&G style stretches well beyond the work and encompasses their very presence on the art scene, as two virtually interchangeable tweed-suited eccentrics, relics from an era of Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse and afternoon tea spiked with sherry.

A very early work of theirs, ‘Crusade’ was created in 1980 and shows the two artists already looking as though they could be any age between a young-fogeyish 32 and a patrician avuncular 60. They are presented like Victorian soldiers, stoic and blank, in ochre and blood-red panels, either side of a stark architectural archway that might be a heavenly gate of righteousness; or the back of a wooden chair. Are we looking at scenes from a stained-glass window or a medieval fresco? Or lurid squares cut from a comic book? Their style is enduring, but what do they have apart from style? Do they have substance?

An art sceptic may well feel that this query hits on the problem with Gilbert and George’s work: is it a prophetic sign resonating with meaning, or a plain and laughably quotidian object? Looking through their decades-spanning body of work, it’s amazing how very little their aesthetic, concerns, strengths and weaknesses as artists have changed. The technical aspects of their work have proven amazingly unvarying, for good and for ill. The pieces are made up of treated, strongly coloured photographs with thick outlines, displayed in panels. They are physically impressive and glamorous in a way that their creators are not; and of course, this contrast is itself funny and deliberate.

This is the kind of glossy, expensive, impeccable large-scale art that is created by teams of assistants. In the process of assembly the handiwork and physical involvement of the artists has all but disappeared, although their images feature on its finished surface. Although Gilbert and George are rarely smiling in these images, they are undeniably comical. The towering sleekness of the pieces speaks of the utmost artistic arrogance, but the pair’s own cameo appearances undercut this because they are hilariously out of place and anachronistic even in their own, self-created world of wild and sexy beauty, bodies, congress and physicality.

In this way, Gilbert and George demonstrate a rare sense of humour about themselves and an awareness of the brutal chasm between image and reality. So many of the young men featured in their work are not heroes or angelic martyrs, as they appear to be by virtue of their physical beauty, but also-rans, outsiders, wannabes, hustlers. Nobody will remember their names, for all their beauty, although people will remember Gilbert and George, the men who framed them.

The early work is certainly memorable. It is easy to remember, in fact, because it is so very simple, so shamelessly, cringeworthily literal. ‘Hunger’, made in 1982, features two young men sucking each other off, yes, hungrily. It could only offend and appal if one were a total homophobe, which unfortunately many people are. Otherwise, viewed nearly 30 years on, it merely bores. The Keith Haring-style peppy simplicity of the basic forms, the primary yellow and red colouring, are pure pop. Similarly, ‘Thirst’, made in the same year, gives us two black, red-ended willies shooting straight beans of jizz (or is it piss?) into two open-mouthed chaps’ faces. If you drew this stuff on your school exercise book at the age of 14 you’d get a cuff round the ear. Do it as a grown-up and you get a sizeable rehang at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

These early silly-willy works must be seen in their rightful cultural context, that of the rampant mainstream homophobia, general ignorance, cultural snobbery and artistic stultification of Britain in the very early 1980s. This is before the Warholian New York vibe crossed the Atlantic and the growth of any meaningful understanding of AIDS that was untainted by prejudice and fear and hate. It was perhaps only months before the dawning realisation in middle England, the place which is always the last to know and horribly surprised to find out, that London had a thriving gay scene at which chaps like those did things like that. Gilbert and George’s early work looks daft and passé now because they were effective in changing the culture then. It is still, actually, quite rare to see gay sex and gay relationships represented in what is an overwhelmingly straight-seeming society, a society positively chock full of images of boy-meets-girl, whether in galleries of high art or at the local cineplex.

It has been taken as a sign of Gilbert and George’s misogyny that they do not feature women in the work, but I find that refreshing. They are not interested in women in any way, so they do not include us. That is a thousand times better than what the vast majority of straight male artists have done over centuries of art history in dozens of forms and treatments, which is to objectify, vulgarise and sexualise women while simultaneously feeling total intellectual disdain for us and mistreating us viciously behind the scenes. Gilbert and George objectify boys and men instead. They also celebrate them, stand alongside them, stand out from them in their highly self-conscious eccentricity (I wonder if they ever slop about the house in trackie bottoms and World Cup T-shirts?) and make it abundantly, totally, utterly clear where their political, personal, social and sexual allegiances lie. And that is fine. Gilbert and George are not hypocrites, whatever else they may be.

Equally, however, they are not sophisticates. The falsified images they present to the world, the performance of indistinguishable unity, the whole life-as-art shebang, are themselves gauche. From the mid-80s onwards it’s possible to discern serious growth in their concerns and the power and complexity of their work. A piece entitled ‘Existers’ is a fantastic, vividly coloured crowd scene of boys and men, hopeful and chic and maudlin, soaked through with acid bright colours. All the exuberance of a great frieze or community mural is here; it’s also a portrait of an active culture, subjected to a great freeze, as the title makes clear.

I am surely not the only critic who finds Gilbert and George’s panels of the last decade or so sinister in their perfection. The artists have now grown into their tweed suits; they have become their costumes. Their aesthetic – the solid colours and blocky black font of some of their titles – has been appropriated by graphic design and advertising culture in the decades since they were first created. Their relatively recent work shares advertising’s lack of irony, which is no bad thing in a contemporary art scene which is often criticised for its callousness and combative mockery towards its audience. A piece called ‘Faith Drop’, made in 1991, gives us a naked George and Gilbert held aloft in two huge, mauve, godly palms, against an acid yellow sky studded with descending discs with Stars of David on them. What does it mean? Does it mean we should dump a bit of misty-eyed faith and hopefulness on war-torn lands? Is it a critique of Israel? Is religion the problem rather than the solution? Or, like a Benetton advert, does it ultimately mean not very much?

The exposure in Edinburgh brings up a final and pertinent question, now that the artists are presented as blithe and benign godparents of the now grown-up generation of Young British Artists (Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood, Damien Hirst) who caused havoc then made a killing on the international market: how will they be remembered? In a way it’s unfair to put up their brashest, thinnest, least sophisticated and impressive works; and yet the later stuff has been overshadowed by the YBAs’ glitz and variety. They have not yet, oddly, produced that one overarching brand image, the single piece which facile people, in this age of slogans and logos, apparently need to be able to identify an artist. Where’s their pickled shark, cast concrete building or embroidered tent? How are we to remember them?

Still, Gilbert and George have done something that is usually almost impossible for artists strongly identified with one particular era. They managed to go effortlessly from being part of an art scene of 30 years ago, many of whose stars are now forgotten, to blending with today’s crowd. I watched Gilbert and George in person at the Venice Biennale in 2005, surrounded by a rabid crowd of hangers-on and groupies of both sexes and all ages. The duo were themselves charmingly, even chillingly, unruffled, like the stone cold sober hosts of a wild party. That may, indeed, be a good way of summing up their work.

Gilbert and George, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road, 0131 624 6200, 29 Jul–1 Nov, free.

What You See Is Where You’re At: Part 3

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This is the third major wave of displays celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The fourteen new displays feature masterpieces from the Gallery’s world-famous collection as well as exciting new works and commissions by international contemporary artists. From the…

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