Gilbert & George endure in most people’s conciseness now as strange visual oddities, their own personas the visual manifestation of their art rather than any typical notion of art object or even art show.
It is hard to separate their particular aesthetic from their artistic output and of course this has been the intention since they first met at Central St Marten’s in 1967 and later, classically, declared themselves living sculptures in their refusal to disassociate themselves from their work. This declaration has been the pairs making and perhaps frequently their breaking, the reason that sometimes the often weighty core of their work is glossed over in favour of more banal reflections on an extremely successful form of visual art branding.
Gilbert & George’s current exhibition ‘London Pictures’ showing at all White Cube galleries, for once seems to actively seek a degree of disassociation from their own self’s that might allow us the opportunity to see past their sometimes overwhelming visual personalities. The shows consists of 292 posters based on Newspaper headlines the pair have collected throughout the city over the last few years, grouped by similarity or ‘theme’ of headline into unsettling collages that alternatively feature words such as kill, stab, knife, jail, rape and gun. At no point is the viewer permitted to forget that these headlines are real, that they are essentially found images that have been removed from their real world context and assembled in such a way that the viewer is immersed in the brutal and soulless world of tabloid hysteria that hungrily feeds off the terrible crimes it deplores.
This exhibition finally, and perhaps unavoidably considering its subject matter, seems to focus on the unflinchingly serious intentions that have always been at the root of the pairs work yet have been typically obscured by their prankster persona’s of old. They now succeed in offering a pertinent reflection on the city that has so intrinsically shaped their art personas and, in the last year particularly, a city whose character has unequivocally toughened in the wake of last summers riots and more recently through the quashing of free protest and the growth in crime and unemployment. Gilbert & George regard a city whose faith has been shaken and they steadfastly refuse to offer any solution or provide hope that that faith might be regained.
This seems to be the simple yet solemn core of London Pictures. The premise is perhaps not particularly groundbreaking, however what makes this show worthwhile and unique is its artistic context, the pair that made it: two elder statesmen of British art who have bourn witness to decades of London’s history and who startlingly, without a trace of the humor and irony we have come to expect of them, paint a very bleak dystopian future. We have to hope that like the tabloid maelstrom they comment on, their proclamation sits somewhere between fact and fiction and that change for the better is still a viable option.
Written by Fiona Haggerty