Gilbert and George are the godfathers of modern British art. Without them, the trite messages and facile innuendo of Britart would have been unthinkableby Ben Lewis / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
I recently received an email from the White Cube gallery inviting me to see the new pictures by Gilbert and George, which were, they said, “lustrous, ornate, pictorially complex, vividly coloured, yet suffused with tenebrous solemnity.” Imagine my surprise then, as I entered the gallery and beheld what were—even by the diabolically low standards established by the YBAs in the 1990s—the most empty-headed artworks produced in Britain in living memory. The only thing they had in common with the text of the gallery’s email was absurd hyperbole. It left me wondering: what makes Gilbert and George so bad?
Gilbert and George’s new work is not particularly new. As with everything they’ve done since the early 1970s, they’ve made another pile of large brightly coloured panels of photo-montage divided by a grid of frames. They look like a cross between stained-glass windows and cheap Soviet poster art. Their religious subject matter is not handled originally either. Small jewel-encrusted crucifixes cascade across their pictures in pleasing patterns or are blown up to a height of several feet. There are amulets and trinkets that seem to come from Celtic burial mounds, medieval heraldry and Chinese toyshops. As usual, the figures of Gilbert and George appear in the midst of these compositions, like vaudeville performers on a small stage.
It would be unfair to criticise Gilbert and George for lapsing into a parody of themselves, in which their style has become a series of formulaic tropes and painfully obvious gestures. This is not unusual for late work, and the same criticisms could be thrown at Emil Nolde, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The problem is that Gilbert and George have always been like this.
They famously debuted as “living sculptures” in 1969. Taking their cue from the unquestioning adulation the art world was bestowing on European contemporaries such as Joseph Beuys, they told us quickly that everything the…