The Fundamental Theology of Gilbert and George

by Robert C. Morgan

Aestheticizing the abject has become a virtual sign of the times. Perhaps, it is based on the existential fear and dread of coming to the end of a millennium, a kind of isolation of the soul as it speculates on confronting the negation of the self (non-Being), a scatological secret, or even, in some cases, an augmented anxiety about the Day of Judgment. Our deepest fears become sublimated in such a way that beauty is transformed into glamour, and truth becomes media. Whereas in the early nineteenth century the Age of Romanticism became a sublimation of the fears of industrialization, one might consider the Fashion World today as a sublimation of fear of the end of the millennium. Where are we going? What are we doing?

The popularization of art or what is now confused as "visual culture" has not only become a means to avoid the radical notion of quality, it has also become both the sign and effect of beauty. Put another way, much of the art we are seeing today has become hard-pressed to signify anything beyond the allure of the media, the quick-take, the image-making machine that drives our information-based society. We live in a dialectical world of images: fleeting images, images that come and go, that appear and disappear, images in which there is no further commitment than the momentary allure or titillation they provide. Here it is and there it goes. Tactile experience has been left in the dust. Only the virtual survives. Only the image in all its permutations. The image of the abject played out into eternity.

Even so, the current exhibition, entitled The Fundamental Pictures, shared by the Lehmann Maupin Gallery and Sonnabend Gallery, is collectively this duo's most incisive series of work in well over a decade. The two-part exhibition offers a series of large-scale color photographs in a grid format. Gilbert and George give us an unabashed, though detached honesty that is more than alluring. It is an exhibition filled with self-indulgence, macro images of feces and other bodily secretions, and "fundamental" words like piss, spit, tears, and spunk. We are perpetually confronted with the naked bodies of the two artists, either facing use or bending over to reveal their buttocks and recta, as in Front and Back and Piss, 1996. These works represent a convincing display of obsessiveness, an unmistakable self-effacement, and a blatant narcissism. Lesser artists tend to sublimate or conceal these traits by displacing them in favor of commodities, digital technologies, or slick video projections as if to prevent the core of the issue from being seen.

While tight and nearly systemic in its presentation, the exhibits tend to become overly repetitive. There are failures as well as successes. Trivial works, like Bloody Shit House, 1996 and In the Shit, tend to be prosaic in their representation and superficial in concept. Other works in the exhibition make up for the trivial ones: namely, Spat On, 1996 and Bloody Naked, 1996. The best works, like Spit Blind, 1996 and Blood and Piss, 1996, have an extraordinary visual power in their iconic desire for transcendence. Spit Blind, especially, is a veritable tour-de-force, reminiscent of Masaccio's Expulsion.

Their abject images are both escatalogical (fascination with the coming of last events as in the chronicle of St. John of Patmos) or scatological (fascination with feces). Therefore, is aestheticizing the abject the dark side of human existence in current advanced art an escato-scatological phenomenon? (How else could one rationalize that the most popular issue of the Art Journal the official publication of the prestigious College Art Association of two or three years ago which was devoted exclusively to artists who use shit or the concept of shit in their work.)

Gilbert and George began to achieve recognition in the late sixties. Upon graduating from St. Martin's in London, they declared themselves an artist-dyad, or, in sociological terms: the minimal unit, a two- person group. They further declared that they did not need to make any more sculpture, because they were sculpture. This was, of course, during the hey-day of British conceptual art. Several artists, such as the Art and Language group in Coventry, were focusing specifically on the transformation of the art object into language propositions. Making such statements at that time was not uncommon, and Gilbert and George were part of the action

Best remembered from this early period is their famous Singing Sculpture, 1970 in which the two artists, dressed in suits with bronze-colored faces and hands, perform like marionettes while mouthing the words to a recording of a favorite Edwardian ballad called Underneath the Arches. Four years later Gilbert and George were to perform their masterpiece at Sonnabend Gallery entitled The Red Room, 1974. For this work, the artists had their hands and faces painted in red while wearing similar tweed suits as worn in the Singing Sculpture. The Red Room was a choreography in which the dyad moved according to a specific architectonic plan during a lengthy duration of time, again impersonating marionettes. This work could be viewed as a culmination of the early twentieth century concept of the Ubermarionette introduced by the theorist and dramatist Gordon Craig.

Their interest in photography as a means of documenting their silent performances became an important aspect of their work early on. The first photographs always taken of themselves in a state of either contemplating or observing were relatively small in scale, black and white, and usually framed in multiple parts. By the late seventies, the works became larger and the grid had become their standard format. By the eighties color and larger scale formats entered into the work. The content of the photographs became increasingly oriented toward gay issues, often involving explicit homoerotica. While using a conceptual underpinning in their work, Gilbert and George have generally focused on humanistic issues, including social and political problems ranging from alcoholism, drugs, pollution, health epidemics, class conflicts, and the threat of nuclear arsenals.

The best of the works included in the current exhibition represent a cool, nearly pathological desire for exhibitionism a pop conceptualism that has reached a mode of delivery that relates the existential lives of these artists to the rest of the world. I read this exhibition as being much more than the travails of two gay British artists. In spite of its deficiencies, it is an exhibition about survival, defiance, and as one of their titles suggests maintaining the Bloody Faith.

Although The Fundamental Pictures is fraught with the abject, it somehow manages to represent this aspect of the human condition with dignity and pride. It is an attempt to bridge the split, the fissure between, the outside appearance the world of fashion and the inner-soul. I have to say that in spite of its repetitive narcissism and self-indulgences the work of Gilbert and George constitutes a significant statement a statement that raises many issues that need to be confronted in a world struggling to find its humanity at the end of the millennium.

(ends at Lehmann Maupin and Sonnabend Gallery on June 28)

Copyright ©1997 Robert C. Morgan & REVIEW All Rights Reserved