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Gilbert and George: Pictures

By Andrew Jack

LettrineARIS, 8 December 1997 - Tucked away in a discreet showcase in their Paris exhibition, the artists Gilbert and George themselves provide the best commentary on their work. In a small printed guide, they lay out their guiding principles, including: describe what you do as art; and make sure people pay lots of money for it.

With such a transparent public health warning put so explicitly onto paper so early in their careers, it is hard to be entirely critical of their subsequent work. Even the pretentiousness of some of their subsequent videotaped conversations about art can be partially forgiven.

For if Gilbert & George are best known for their giant, multi-coloured photographic works - which are present at the Paris museum of modern art in abundance - one of the pleasures of this latest retrospective is the variety of examples of the other media in which they work.

Bloody LifeCompared to some overly exhaustive previous exhibitions in the same gallery, this one comes in a handily digestible size, with plenty of opportunities to observe their evolving art and to see films in which they attempt to explain what they are up to - sometimes in locations as exotic as China.

Indeed, it is certainly intriguing to imagine the reactions that their often eye-browing raising pictures must have triggered in such conservative places as Zurich, not to mention Moscow and Shanghai - where their outspoken support of capitalism in the art market must have shocked as much as the art itself.

Naked ForestTheir equally vocal support for Mrs Thatcher, the former British prime minister, looks especially intriguing when contrasted with the stark, rain-drenched, concrete tower block-scattered images of London Bloody Life No.16 - 1975, which would arguably have been enough to turn anyone into a rabid socialist.

There again, the two men (one born in Devon, the other in Italy) were already standing out from the mood of the times in the 1970s and 1980s by cultivating their near-identical, smartly-dressed images (Nature Piece - 1971) - and even while still in art school, where they first met.

While they have long attempted to stun verbally (George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit - 1969), explicit nudity has come rather more recently, and more often features themselves (Faith Drop - 1991) - perhaps a little past their best - rather than others Naked Forest - 1982.

In the ShitThere can be few artists to be able to claim such an intimate link with their viewers, even if the most recent In the shit - 1996 experiments with bodily fluids echo the work of others such as Andres Serrano.

HungerThat is not to say that some of their stylised art would not fail to shock certain sensibilities either through its anatomical explicitness Hunger - 1982 or its non-too-subtle coded forms (Rose Hole - 1980). Flowers are a preferred metaphor Good - 1983Good.

But the word play - and its association with the connected image - is among the most entertaining aspects of their work, from the understated (Bottoms Up - 1973) to more perhaps rather less ambiguous Coloured friends - 1982and not always even sexual (Light-headed - 1991).

Coloured FriendsThey have been exploring strong combinations of words with their images from the start of their careers, such as in some of the roughly sketched "self" or "mutual" portraits All my life I give you nothing and still you ask for more - 1970.

Intellectual DepressionThere is plenty of stand-alone visual humour too (The Glass - 1973), with a series of photographs of glasses and the artists drinking from them carefully positioned. Or in the case of a restaurant menu on display, with a coloured remnant of each item of food and wine next to the appropriate place.

Shit FaithFor, after all, not every one of the Gilbert & George pictures need be seen as homo-erotic. Some of the most powerful, such as the stark outline of a tree in winter Intellectual Depression - 1980 have other subjects entirely.

Religion crops up periodically too, albeit in a hardly favourable light Shit Faith - 1982, and often in connection with temptation Bad God - 1983. Perhaps fortunately for the artists, even before Salman Rushdie showed what a bad idea it could be, they chose to avoid too much reference to erotic connections with other belief systems Mullah - 1980.Bad God

The EdgeOverall, it is the sheer size and colour of the works that perhaps stands out most (Class War - 1986), and the evocative which is most impressive The Edge - 1988. You may not be able to afford them, or want to squeeze them into your home even if you could, but there is something for everyone except the prude.
Mullah


Andrew Jack is the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com. He is the author of a new book entitled, "The French Exception" (London: Profile Book).

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