Monday, October 06, 2008

Provocative Duo, Naked and Natty (NY Times)

Dynamic duo, gruesome twosome or just plain geeks in ties and tweeds, the British artists Gilbert & George don’t seem to care what you call them as long as you pay attention, which you couldn’t avoid doing if you tried in their suffocating and disordered wraparound survey at the Brooklyn Museum.

Partners in life and work for 40 years, the artists have had a major career, particularly in Britain, where they were a sensation long before “Sensation,” and now hold a kind of national monument status. Their new show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Gilbert & George,” originated at Tate Modern in London.

Yet popular is not really the word for them. They’re too strange for that. And to perpetually temperature-taking art-world eyes, they have always stood a little outside the coolness loop, a tad beyond the pale, a touch too much.

The look-alike personal style they’ve affected, a robotic blandness, has probably had something to do with this; they are certainly no one’s idea of a glamour couple. And their sleek, photo-based, politically incorrect across-the-spectrum art is as hard to love as it is to categorize. Even if you appreciate it, you may prefer not to spend time with it.

Then there’s the perversity factor. They have a funky sense of beauty and an appetite for unsightly things, things most people come to art museums not to see. They were using images of feces back in the 1980s, long before Andres Serrano got the idea. In the 1990s, when they had reached an age at which most exhibitionists put their clothes back on, Gilbert & George, then in their mid-50s, took theirs off. More recently, when the art establishment had declared blatantly topical political art to be anathema, that’s what they made.

And they keep making it. It’s as if they can’t stop. And digital technology has only upped the output, which is one reason the Brooklyn show looks the way it does: oppressively and exhaustingly busy and dense, without even a clarifying logic of chronology to offer relief.

At the same time, for exactly these reasons, the show is a vivid experience. First look may be best look, but it’s a memorable look. And it poses a genuine love-it-or-hate-it proposition, something in short supply these days, but one these artists have been offering for years.

Gilbert Proesch (born in northern Italy in 1943) and George Passmore (born in Devon, England, in 1942) met in art school in Swinging London in 1967. It was a wild time to be there. Mild-mannered male singing duos — Peter and Gordon, Chad and Jeremy — topped the charts while the Beatles dropped acid in India. Middle-class hippies and working-class kids faced off. Pop was already old; Conceptualism was starting.

Gilbert & George fed off all of this, but also backed away from it. Self-described country boys in the big city for the first time, and a committed couple, they stayed away from the art school set and instead moved to what was then a derelict East London, where they lived cheaply, saw almost no one and did their thing.

What was their thing? Some would call it performance art; Gilbert & George called it sculpture. An early piece, “Underneath the Arches,” was a kind of tableau vivant. It entailed their posing together for long stretches — eight hours in some cases — and barely moving as they lip-synched the recorded music-hall song of the title, about the melancholy joys of the homeless life.

In London in 1970 they presented it free on the street for passers-by. In galleries, they performed it standing on tables, their skin covered with blotchy bronze makeup that made them look diseased. You can see a 1974 performance in a video in the show. Like much of their art, it is striking, then maddening, an endurance test for artists and viewers alike.

By then they had fixed on the odd-couple look they would keep: Gilbert, short, dark-haired, cute; George, taller, spectacled, blond-going-bald. With their blank faces and matching, slightly too-tight suits, they suggested overgrown schoolboys or modish clerks, part of the present but also part of some undefined past.

In the early 1970s they translated their live sculpture into more permanent mediums, first large drawings — a gallery in the show is devoted to these — and then into photographic ensembles. Initially the photographs were small, but of varied sizes and differently arranged from piece to piece. Then a set format developed: four or more same-size framed pictures — black and white, sometimes dyed red — grouped edge to edge as a rectilinear unit.


Blogger Stanley Workman said...

"God is Chaos.
Tithe Ritalin."
-Marc Breed, Fine Artist

"I laid nestled between the thighs of her dying body. The ambilical cord providing the scant nurishment, until rescued some 36 hours hence. You might say, I was born a fetish photographer."
-Marc Breed

11:41 AM


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