We Two Are One

5.17.2007

By Matthew Breen

Forty years ago, Gilbert Proesch met George Passmore in a sculpture course at St. Martin's School of Art in London, and it was 'love at first sight.' Both figuratively and literally, they have been inseparable ever since. The anniversary of this fateful meeting of the artist collectively known as Gilbert & George is celebrated in a new, massive two-volume set from Aperture and Tate Publishing. Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, 1971-2005 extensively chronicles their journey from oddball renegades to beloved members of the art establishment.

Gilbert & George's signature style coalesced in large, brightly colored photo montages, often backlit to resemble stained glass and incorporating button-pushing symbols (swastikas, crucifixes, roses, flags) and provocative text ('cock,' 'scum,' 'fucked up'). As self-described 'living sculptures,' they insist they live their whole lives as art; they're prone to rude jokes, are rarely seen dressed in anything but matching suits or apart from one another, and keep slavishly to a peculiar daily schedule.

With their taboo subject matter encompassing religion, race, nationalism, urbanity, biology, and, of course, sex, Gilbert & George have often drawn the ire of some art critics who regard them as exhibitionist jokesters, but the pair seem to delight in the controversy. Beginning in the 1980s their deliberately provocative work took on gay issues: They appeared nude in front of comically giant turds in 'The Naked Shit Pictures' and depicted microscopic images of semen, blood, saliva, and urine in response to the AIDS crisis. Though many members of the art establishment have continued to deride them, the Tate Modern in London recently unveiled its largest retrospective of any artist to date, 'Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition.' The exhibit's next stops: Munich, Turin, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn. Given the duo's taste for confrontation, one can only guess they're praying for harsh reviews.

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