Progression of Art
George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit
George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit is a double color portrait of the artists dressed smartly in suits with ties and flowers in their lapels. George on the left hand side is smoking a cigarette. Both are smiling for the camera - the sort of cheesy smile that you might make for a photographer at a wedding. Yet, disrupting any sense of propriety, cut-out letters announcing George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit are emblazoned across their chests.
This is a pivotal work in the artists' career. It was at this point, the duo decided that there would be no separation between themselves and their art. Aware that what they were proposing was quite bold, they decided to anticipate any potential criticism by labeling themselves pejoratively. Here the terms cunt and shit are not just designed to offend but show that the pair refused to be dependent on the art industry's opinion, arguably the work's main legacy.
The artists whose background was in sculpture, classified most of their early work including George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit as magazine sculptures. These were works published in newspapers, magazines, and occasionally as postcards. This work was shown in an invitation-only pop-up event at Robert Fraser Gallery in May 1969 before becoming a magazine spread. As revealed by the duo, the magazine version, published in the journal Studio International, was in black and white against their wishes. At the time, fine art photography was almost always black and white and color photographs were considered tacky. The words cunt and shit were also censored and appeared covered.
2 photographs, color, on paper on printed paper - Tate
The idea for living sculptures - the artists creating their art using their own bodies - first started when they were students. Gilbert & George performed Singing Sculpture over a number of years and was their first success. For this performance they painted themselves in bronze and dressed in suits to sing and dance to a 1930s song titled Underneath the Arches. In the original song, performed by popular vaudeville artists Flanagan and Allen, two men discover some pleasure in the fact they have no homes to go to and have to sleep outside in the open air. Gilbert & George's version saw the artists dancing robotically like puppets.
In this work the duo furthered their aim of breaking down the distinction between life and art by making a link to prewar Britain, a time when there was a lot of poverty and many people were marginalized within society. It also managed to engage a wider public through a popular song. In identifying with the lyrics of Underneath the Arches and with tramps who live underneath the arches rather than in fancy hotels, Gilbert commented "that song was about our existence. The words described what we were like (...) we didn't have anything."
Performed many times all over the world between 1969 and 1991this Singing Sculpture normally lasted six minutes, however in a few versions, it became an endurance piece and lasted for eight hours or more.
The work was important for rejecting the idea of 'a formalistic art based on shapes and colors' at a time when the artists were experimenting with new media as well as ways of avoiding the commodification and fetishization of the art object.
Performance art (bronze paint, tape recorder, cane, glove)
The Tuileries installation consists of life-size charcoal drawings of trees lining the walls of a living room, with the same imagery plastered all over the furniture as well. The size of the room is based on the living room of the gallerists that first commissioned the piece. The furniture is based on pieces from the artists' home - the two chairs can also be seen in their early video Gordon's Makes us Drunk (1972). Although the pair used the term sculpture to categorize all their oeuvre, this installation is one of their few works that actually features three-dimensional sculptures.
The overall effect of this installation is of a secluded wooded copse. This is significant because the duo is deliberately referring to the homosexual practice of cottaging - gay men having casual sex in woods. The Tuileries was a well-known hang-out for the Parisian homosexual community in the early 1970s. In one of the three large backdrop-like drawings, there is a life-size self-portrait of the couple strolling at the park. By inserting themselves in such a setting, Gilbert & George proudly declare their homosexuality. Yet, as art critic Blake Gopnik noted, these charcoal drawings are melancholic. and this "sadness has an important social dimension: It's how it felt to be a gay couple in 1960s in Britain."
Additionally, the domestic scale of the furniture together with the surrounding drawings, make The Tuileries an immersive experience, one in which the viewer experiences the park with the artists. Creating inclusive and accessible works of art is one of Gilbert & George's main concerns, and although a somewhat utopian idea, their proposed 'Art for All,' was at the time revolutionary. Regardless of your background, your race, or your sexual orientation - the duo invited you to take a stroll in The Tuileries.
Charcoal on paper, and charcoal on paper mounted on wood, eight parts - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Coming, a grid of nine black and white photographs, is from the period before the artists' discovery of color. The title, slap in the middle of the image, tells us that this image is about ejaculation and that the white liquid splattered across four of the squares is semen. Four pictures placed on each of the corners depict portraits of both artists making hand gestures that can only be intended to have a sexual meaning. The artists have arranged the frames in the design of a cross, touching on one of their other favorite subjects: religion.
In Coming, the discrepancy between the artists' oblivious facial expression and their pornographic hand gesture is simultaneously uncanny and hilarious. The semen's splatter is more cartoonish than explicit. In an art gallery context, it could also reference Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. As noted by art historian Robin Dutt, such work is unbelievably scandalous exactly because "it appears so temperedly playful and coolly mischievous." Besides its pioneering combination of sex and playfulness, Coming also deserves to be praised for its unapologetic portrayal of homosexuality very early on.
This is a relatively subtle work by Gilbert & George's standard and is a far cry from some of the later works that feature much more graphic content. Over the years, the pair have plundered a huge variety of homo-erotic material including photographs and illustrations of phallus, anus, full nudity, and close-up masturbation. Some of the most indecorous include: Sperm Eaters (1982), Hard Cocks (1982), Fingered (1991), and Bum Holes (1994). In challenging taboos they want to forge a bond with everyone. They also believe that their role is to make the images rather than analyze them, seeing the role of interpreter belonging to the viewer. They have said that "Sex as subject in art is in some ways forbidden. The corner porn shop has in some ways more freedom because the artist has to justify it morally. We believe that the power of living is sex. There is nothing else".
nine individually framed black and white silver gelatin photographs
Polish Cross consists of 10 identical postcards with the image of the former Polish Pope, John Paul II, glued in a cross shape against a background of 20 identical postcards of a crown. Part of the Postcard Picture series, this is a work that brings together the two powerful agencies of religion and the monarchy. The crucifixion is an image that the pair return to time and time again. In this work - as with all their work that contains strong and potentially offensive imagery - the artists' attitude is ambivalent. They have a conflicting view of religion - using blasphemy to criticize the fundamentalist and intolerant aspects of it, while also making some celebratory depictions, including works resembling colorful stained glass windows. Gilbert & George profess to be monarchists and huge fans of the British crown. In a 2002 newspaper interview, they said: "We're the only monarchists among the artists today, because they're all anti-establishment. To be an artist, you have to be anti-establishment. But we're not."
In 1974 the duo began to make rectangular shaped ordered grids, a significant development as they continue to use the repeated arrangement in their work today. Gilbert & George have also been working with postcards and other ephemera for many years and have a huge collection of postcards that they use as material and inspiration. According to the artists, "the form of the postcard lends itself to the expression of finer feelings, stirring thoughts and beautiful views."
Postcard glued to board - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Drunk with God
Drunk with God, part of The Believing World series, is one of the very large works that Gilbert & George started to make in the early 1980s. Rather like a mural, the composition was meticulously planned in sections and then hand-colored. It also marks the moment the pair started using other colors besides just red and black. Their trademark grid pattern here is closer to a window and the intense color gives it the appearance of stained glass. The bright, artificial almost hallucinogenic colors in Drunk with God and the simplified objects make associations with Pop Art. The flowers - a symbol of sex and fecundity - on the upper left corner, for example, resemble those in Andy Warhol's lithographs.
By the 1980s, queer culture became less marginalized, entering the mainstream and appropriately the pair made a shift in size and scale to create this celebratory extravaganza. At this point, the artists chose to contemplate the social and spiritual condition of man through a series of important photographic works. This work, with its epic, cosmic vision of the world, depicts the artists as both observers and creators. Drunk with God's complex narrative can't be deciphered completely; the duo also do not offer any further explanation. Clearly this is a dream-like world one enters when intoxicated. However, symbols of drunkenness such as the lost keys after a long night out, the money irresponsibly spent, and the excrement are all there. The out-of-scale hand represents God and the artists are omnipresent, being depicted in several sections of the work. Young men stand as representatives of ideal manhood. Drunk with God mischievously aspires to grandeur by conflating the idea of religious or spiritual suffering with the all-too-human suffering caused by being drunk.
hand-dyed gelatin silver prints
Blood on Piss
This abstract image from the The Fundamental Pictures series is the result of photographs of blood and urine taken through a microscope. The negatives are then painted and manipulated to create this geometric composition in bright colors. The red and yellow combination is meant to catch the viewer's attention as it is used in cheap advertisements and by mainstream companies such as McDonald's. George remarked that "it is the least artistic color combination. In museums, you see very few paintings in red and yellow." Again, underscoring the artists' desire to stand out and subvert the norm.
The fact that bodily fluids were used in The Fundamental Pictures series inevitably brings up medical issues including the fear of infection. Although the pair say they did not deliberately think of the AIDS epidemic when creating the work, they are not opposed to this association. They have lost some of their friends from the disease and, in 1988, put together 'For AIDS,' a fundraising exhibition in which all the proceeds went to associations helping people with the illness. Blood on Piss is definitely a provocation against society's taboos, requiring the viewer to re-think what is forbidden, disgusting, or pornographic. The image is simultaneously beautiful and scatological. As author Robin Dutt remarked "What Gilbert & George had done is to deliberately translate the solid material world to the almost always unseen, echoing the somewhat mystical concept that within us are so many unseen universes."
Hand-dyed gelatin silver prints
BEARDGATE is part of Gilbert & George's recent series, THE BEARD PICTURES. In this image they depict themselves wearing beards made of barbwire. The beards form a gate in the middle of the composition. Across the series, the artists present themselves wearing beards of every conceivable shape and color, manipulating the photographs of themselves in such a way that they become somewhat diabolic. The pair color themselves red, have dark pits for eyes and sport pointy horns - these are violent and trashy images that evoke a kind of sci-fi aesthetic.
While BEARDGATE is an attack on the recent hipster trend of young men sporting facial hair, it also provoked more controversial matters. The series was not well received with some critics and viewers feeling that that it was offensive to racial minorities, most specifically Arab immigrants and other religious figures. The work was seen as opportunistic in using the European immigrant crisis as a source of inspiration. As with other controversies they have managed to provoke, Gilbert & George are reluctant to say very much. Gilbert, however, when asked specifically about this work said "It has to be aggressive in some way: we are provoking thought. We invented a new way of making pictures for ourselves that can speak very loudly and confrontationally. We are pressing buttons."