Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Gilbert & George

On Sunday, I finally had a chance to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Gilbert & George 40-year retrospective. This exhibition has been traveling to other museums for the past three years, and this is the last stop. The artist duo helped install the exhibition itself, suggesting that the arrangement of the pieces in the show was as important to G&G as the works themselves. As they've claimed in writing about their work, it is about life experience, not the art historical process. They prefer the viewer to look at the art from an experiential point of view; what the viewer thinks is more important than what they are or a critic is expressing. The duo appears in almost everything they've ever done, and as time has passed, their own faces and bodies age as well. Their presence becomes like an omnipotent force through their oeuvre and through the exhibition. G&G first met in 1967 when they were students at St. Martin's School of Art in London. They paired up and, so they say, the rest is history (and by "pairing" the implication is that they are partners in work and love). Both of them were sculptors, and they quickly took to stretching the definition of sculpture beyond static form, creating living sculpture. They would perform "actions" or "happenings" (i.e., performance art), one of their more famous being The Singing Sculpture (1969) in which they performed as bronze-like mannequins. (Street performers who dress up as statues for photo opportunities and for money are derived from this G&G trope.) They expanded out of performance pieces, however, and moved into photography. Today they work in just about every medium, but they usually refer to all of their pieces as sculpture.

The work you see here is one section from the polyptych called Death Hope Life Fear (1984) at the Tate in London. Don't let this digital image fool you in its size. The work is massive. The grid you see is actually a series of thin black frames for each individual part, and each of those is about A4 or approximately 12"x10" in size. Calculate that, and you realize that this piece is close to 8 feet high! And this is only one of four parts, two of them stretching horizontally so that all four pieces took up an entire wall of a large gallery at the Brooklyn Museum. But what of the piece itself? The combination of the words tells you much. G&G have explored aspects of living throughout their career. They've never moved away from their East London home, and so they often incorporate aspects of urban grit, youth, and fear into their works. In this piece, you see G&G replicated in the center with a rose behind them and a daisy in front of them. They become a totem, and the replication of them and the flowers conjures images of Buddhist tantric mandalas. The incorporation of the boys adds the triangulated foundation that one finds in Renaissance paintings of saints, and so this work in many ways takes on a highly spiritual message. It is Death as one aspect of Spirituality. The tantric connection suggests sexuality as well. When you consider this work is from the early 1980s when AIDS had begun to ravage the gay community, it takes on a serious political message, one which can only be seen in conjunction with its companion messages of Hope, Life, and Fear. (Here's a link to an image of Life.)

If you don't see it, don't worry about it. If you think I'm looking too hard at it, maybe you're right. To be honest, it's difficult to really assess what their work is about, especially because the imagery is so complex at times. And if you follow their guidelines, then keep in mind this is just my experience of their work. Perhaps you are just supposed to admire its monumentality and aesthetic appeal. The intensity of color and the optical illusion quality of the figures is hypnotic. Their enormous charcoal drawings affixed with prose, like The Nature of Our Looking (1970) make you almost wish you were walking in their animated, impressionistic life. Later work, like Fates (2005) uses digital manipulation to enhance the surrealistic quality of their art. Other subjects are controversial, such as Sperm Eaters (1982) from a London private collection (hence the warning to parents and teachers at the museum, and that so few really provocative works were on display, as this one wasn't, so here's a photo of it from Flickr). Work such as this last one remind me of Keith Haring. All in all, the exhibition was fascinating, and I'm very glad I went. I can't say I "like" G&G's work, but I respect their production and can appreciate the messages they share and suggest. Know that if their work seems like it shocks you, they claim that isn't meant to be the case. They prefer that it makes you think about art, about life, and about yourself. So sit back, look, and just think.

1 comment:

Sherman Clarke said...

I started skimming your review earlier this afternoon and then realized that I really wanted to see the show rather than just read about it. I had many of the galleries to myself. Was everyone out shopping? The polygonal gallery with the vitrines of early work was probably my favorite part of the show. Their words were so heartening: art for all, the value of looking and thinking about what it means. Or just enjoying it. Since you had exclaimed about the size, I was expecting that but the installation was able to handle the large works. I guess, overall, I took more of it at face value than you did so I appreciate your description. I might even go back, partly to absorb more, partly to see if there was anything in that gallery off to the right from the polygonal which I didn't go into and then started running out of time, so I just went down the stairs at the West end of the 5th floor. Mainly, THANKS for reminding me about the show and that I wanted to go see it.