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Gilbert & George at Brighton Museum

5 May 2018 | Sian Brett

David Bowie collected their work. They have lived and worked on the same road in East London since 1968. They collect both pottery and toothpaste. Gilbert & George look like the perfect English gentlemen but in reality something much weirder lies underneath the surface.

Three rooms mark out the shifting work of the duo, who first met at Central St. Martins in 1967 and have been working together ever since. As you move between the rooms you see the progression, but also the effect of age and the wider historical and social context of the pairs work. George told Francois Jonquet in Gilbert & George: Intimate Conversations with Francois Jonquet, “we’re artists, we have nothing to do with politics.” The deeper you delve into their work the harder that is to believe.
 
The first room ‘All the World an Art Gallery’ showcases their beginnings; how they began to work together, creating work as a reaction against contemporary modernist ideas and challenging ideas of traditional art formats. This room sees them begin their work with sculpture and with themselves as living sculptures. Film, magazines, and their own image are all described as ‘sculpture’, blurring the boundary between art and artist. It’s clear even from this early work that for Gilbert & George, they are the art.


Gilbert & George, Existers. 1984. ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Acquired jointly through the d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008. 
 
The pair’s physical presence is very much key here, and as you move through to the second room, titled ‘The Head, The Soul, The Sex’ their more well-known use of multiple frames and bright colours comes into focus. Moving away from their more sombre beginnings and bringing ideas of sex and sexuality into sharp focus, this work from the 1980s is in part driven by the AIDS crisis. Indeed, some of the proceeds from the paintings went towards AIDS charities. Gilbert & George class themselves as outsiders, perhaps making their tailored suits into costumes. Despite presenting themselves as the pinnacle of the upper classes, they align themselves morally and artistically with the disenfranchised youth, the homeless, those that society pushes to the side. This can not only be seen in Fallen Leaves, which features a close up image of the face of a homeless man the pair knew, surrounded by 6 perfectly placed leaves, but also in Existers, a piece which brings homosexuality to the forefront of their work. From here on in the work becomes increasingly explicit. As you enter into the final room of the exhibition you must walk between Hunger and Thirst, two pieces which depict sexual acts, in huge cartoonish, brightly coloured form.


Gilbert & George, Light Headed. 1991. ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Acquired jointly through the d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008
 
The final room, ‘The Flower and the Shit’ is where we see Gilbert & George nude for the first time. The images here are from the 90s collections New Democratic Pictures and Fundamental Pictures and they offer a no holds barred journey into the very intricacies of Gilbert & George – literally. Body parts are flaunted and bodily fluids placed under the microscope in a room not for the faint hearted. Faith, age and bodies are all explored here, in huge overt fashion. The piece that strikes most in this room however, is Light Headed, which sees the duo’s heads looking out straight at the viewer, with disembodied hands for the heads to rest on, as though they are thinking. With a coast in all the wrong colours as their backdrop, one might question what it is that they’re looking at so thoughtfully. Perhaps they’re looking ahead to the next outrageous piece they’re going to create; perhaps they’re casting an eye back over their past; or perhaps they’re looking at you, looking at them, and demanding your attention. They’ve certainly got ours.
 
This exhibition is on at the Brighton Museum until 2 September 2018 and is part of the ARTIST ROOMS touring collection from the Tate. As part of Gilbert & George’s mantra ‘Art for All’ the exhibition is free to Under 26s. The pair will be interviewed by Michael Bracewell on 9 May in the Royal Pavilion Music Room.

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