Gilbert & George, Full of Themselves Again

LONDON — Gilbert & George, that pair of living sculptures, are alive and out on the town again! 

They are such scalawags, these two old posers, such antique, comic, Edwardian gentlemen (complete with bespoke suits and brogues) at first glance — all reputable tailoring on the outside, yet thoroughly uproarious and disreputable, mouths foaming with bad language and fiercely uncivil opinions, when you scratch the surface. 

They are past masters of the titillating, half-meaningful, half-nonsensical, verbal provocation: “We want our Art [their caps throughout this quote] to bring out the Bigot inside the Liberal and conversely to bring out the Liberal inside the Bigot,” they said in 2014. 

Yes, it’s all part of the comedy that surrounds their invented selves. They met at St. Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins) in 1967, but the partnership really started in 1971, and it has rolled on and on ever since, like Buffalo Bill’s Traveling Circus. 

Installation view, Gilbert & George: NEW NORMAL PICTURES at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London (© Gilbert & George. Photo © White Cube [Ollie Hammick])

At first they alone were the art, the two of them together, sitting in silence opposite each other in a grainy film, or painted in gold as if they were a pair of freshly exhumed Egyptian antiquities. That could only go so far, though, because to be filmed or to be gawped at in wonderment — in short, to be the art — is not much of a money-making venture. 

Much changed about 20 years ago, when they switched from analogue to digital, and began to make art that consisted of multiple giant panels, images of a near-cinematic size that starred the two of them engaging in eye-catching pranks, with added text. Each panel bore their monogram, their signature — proof of its authenticity.

They had hit on a handy solution: to make art that was full of themselves. Themselves in frozen motion. Those rather morose living sculptures had come alive again. They had even re-invented themselves, as public entertainers. The story has run and run since then. In the back of the catalogue of their current exhibition, New Normal Pictures, at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, there is a list of the G & G shows that have been staged in museums and public galleries since 1971. It amounts to more than 100. 

Gilbert & George, “Priority Seat” (2020), 89 3/8 x 149 5/8 inches (© Gilbert & George, Courtesy White Cube)

What a success story! Their opinions have often seemed vile in the extreme. Oh what a “wonderful invention” was that British Empire of ours, they said in a creepily respectful interview with the London Guardian a week or two ago. Do they mean it? Of course they do! Of course they don’t! It’s all part of the no-holds-barred, scampish fun of being a duo called G & G. Like Abbott & Costello, one is tall, the other short; one slightly portly, the other (once) thin as a rake. What is more, and in spite of the well-heeled pose of the respectable English gentleman, complete with those hardy brogues for squelching through the mud, one of them is Italian. What fun! What game-playing.

This latest outing at White Cube consists once again of those digitally manipulated, multi-panel images. They wander and cavort through their favorite patches of London’s East End: Kingsland Road, Christ Church Spitalfields, and so on. It’s all a nonstop extravaganza of drizzly street theater — reckless, mildly vertiginous, a dreamscape of a place. We Londoners know these locations well. They make up the area of East London that defines this pair. It’s where they always eat at their favorite Turkish restaurant, these creatures of unshakeable routine. 

Their look is pure vaudeville: arms flung wide, eyes rolling, butts thrust out, waiting for the boot. They have props aplenty: discarded street furniture, railings or scaffolding to lean on or pose against, refuse bins and bin bags, Bob Marley posters made to look like dime bags, laughing-gas canisters, guns, metal gates, giant deflated balloons, a mattress or two. 

Installation view, Gilbert & George: NEW NORMAL PICTURES at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London (© Gilbert & George. Photo © White Cube [Ollie Hammick])

There’s graffiti everywhere, and shabby, rain-sodden Union Jacks. Their lustrous suits range in color from Dijon mustard to purple, from electric blue to psychedelic emerald green. The duo’s faces gleam a lurid yellow as if they were ghosts of themselves. They creep around, they lark about. They strike exaggerated poses. They lurk in the vicinity of red telephone booths. 

In “Pigging” (2020), they sit astride a pair of small pigs. Their expressions run the full gamut of melodramatic effects: shock, amazement, apprehension, horror. Often, they seem to mirror each other in their antics, reprising Groucho’s wonderful mirror routine in Duck Soup (1933), when he is stalked by the multiple selves of his brothers. 

How should we take all this buffoonery? In part, it looks like satire. But what exactly are they poking fun at? They cavort, they make pratfalls almost worthy of the Three Stooges. Is this serious satire? And if so, what exactly are they satirizing? These scenes, remember, are staged in an impoverished, rubbish-choked, drug-infested part of London. Do they feel for the extras in their dramas, who are laughing along here too? Yes, they do, says the Guardian; they are very compassionate faux-Edwardians. 

Gilbert & George, “Pink & Blue” (2020),
59 7/16 x 75 3/16 inches (© Gilbert & George, Courtesy White Cube)

In short, they are always at the center of it all in their sheeny, shiny dapper suits, these Emperors of the East End, fencing with their lengths of drain pipes like two doughty knights of old on their favorite patch of ground, as shabby old East London town buckles at the knee. And what better place to enjoy all this spectacle than a well-appointed gallery in Mayfair?

Gilbert & George: New Normal Pictures continues at White Cube (25–26 Mason’s Yard, London) through May 8.

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