My first encounter with the work of Gilbert & George was at ROSC’84 in the Guinness Hop Store. Our first year class tutor was an art teacher who was savvy enough to realise the importance of the event and drag us there. Where ROSC had initially juxtaposed ancient Irish craft with well-established modern art, by 1984 it was a fully developed representation of progressive creativity (sorely missed in the professional curatorial Ajax of the IMMA reign). Some of the work fused in memory included a beautifully stark and primal canvas by the recently deceased AR Penck and Bill Woodrow’s strange elephant head fabricated from salvaged car doors and torn maps. Amongst the 53 exhibitors, one piece stood out for its scale, graphic impact and audacity – DRUNK WITH GOD by Gilbert & George. This had all the grandiose of a key work of religious stained glass with its paneled sections, yet it seemed to lambast and mock everything sacred in art, itself included.
Gilbert & George have always used their relationship with the public as a melting pot of creativity, injecting the affections and abhorrences of it all back into their art. As longtime residents of Brick Lane in London, they absorbed abuse from east end bootboys and flipped it into strong homoerotic visuals of young skinheads. They made themselves bulletproof to criticism from the self-appointed artistic elite with the absurdity of their “naked shit” series. And all evidence suggests that the Guardian readers who take umbrage at their conservative shtick and crucify their every move simply feed into the mythology of it all.
THE BEARD PICTURES is one monumental exercise in twisting the ironies and paradoxes of the subject until ludicrous and logic are one and the same. It wrestles with the concept of the beard from evolution to devolution, from mandatory religious tradition to frivolous hipster fashion, as an ancient demarcation of honour and virility, a perennial sign of knowledge and an obsessive modern style.
Gilbert & George have never been bearded – aside from the natural aging process they’ve changed little in decades – and their statuesque, cold staring presence in each image cements a towering iconography to the trashy garishness of colour. In theory it shouldn’t work, but it does. The massively imposing scale of everything is propaganda, ostentation, consecration and quick-print design all in one. It embraces all the key elements of images shrewdly designed to pacify and brainwash mixed with utter visual calamity and nonsense. The beards are variously formations of leaves, tangles of barbed wire, knotted plants and other photo-montages. Much of the work is littered with text from “personal services” ads, creepy metallic profiles that look like they were collected from old coins and a variety of building alarm fixtures.
Repetition, rhythm, scale and volume are all key elements of what has always made the art of Gilbert & George so intoxicating. The location definitely has a part to play – White Cube in Bermondsey is an exceptional space and the artists have designed the show to maximize impact.
Although somewhat secondary to the visual subversion of the imagery, the FUCKOSOPHY element of this exhibition is compelling, copious and somewhat exhausting. This is a seemingly endless glossary of idioms and phrases all incorporating the word FUCK, collated in long lists on the walls and alternating in black and red lettering. It suggests extraction from endlessly open studio notebooks on the subject. Interestingly, the repeated profanity renders itself somewhat invisible as the snapshots of ideas take precedence, unveiling a thought process that drives the artists’ work.
In half a century of making art, Gilbert & George have retained their enigma. As the creativity still flows, so does the contradiction – They have plans to convert an old east London Brewery premises into a gallery because the “Tate never shows our work” – all this despite the fact that their Tate Modern show in 2007 was apparently their largest to date and the institution owns a sizeable collection of their art. It’s all a wonderful gameplay of anti-art and Gilbert & George continue to lead the long game with style and calculated irrationality.