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Gilbert & George

A Gorgeous Retrospective at the de Young

Gilbert & George are two people -- and one artist. Since they met at St. Martin’s School of Art in England in 1967, they’ve rarely produced work as individuals. In fact, they almost never appear alone, choosing instead to present themselves as a single “living sculpture.” In their signature business suits -- celebrating the opening of their exhibition at the de Young on Valentine’s Day, these suits were khaki, shot through with tasteful blue and green threading -- they’ve made a name for themselves as a pair of polite, provocative eccentrics.

The Gilbert & George exhibition at the de Young marks the North American debut of the largest retrospective of the duo’s art. In partnership with the Tate Modern, several dozen of Gilbert & George’s enormous paneled photomontages, as well as early videos of their work as performance artists, will make their way from San Francisco to Milwaukee, then Brooklyn. This first stop on the tour is utterly delightful—ebullient but nuanced, it offers viewers a rare chance to view the world through the eyes of perhaps its most interesting contemporary artist(s).

The photomontages often feature the artists themselves (often in the nude) floral motifs, young men, geometric shapes, charms, graffiti and religious symbols, overlaid and then broken into glossy panels. In size, they range from four or five square feet to over fifty. Each individual photograph is taken with a 35mm camera in black and white, enlarged, then arranged with other images and tinted in bright shades. The effect is reminiscent of stained glass—very little Pop or conceptual art packs such thrill. The Ginkgo Pictures, perhaps the highlight of the exhibition, are downright resplendent in pale golds and blues.

At the same time, however, Gilbert & George have never hesitated to pose difficult questions. While some of the work’s social concerns seem specific to urban London, there is no mistaking the universal ambiguity, the simultaneous vulnerability and threat, present in pieces like BOMB, a triptych that takes as one of its subjects the recent terrorist attacks on the London Underground. Gilbert & George loom out of the frames. They are naked again, but in this instance their genitals are apparent only as they would be in anatomical models, as crimson sacs and lengths of fine scarlet veins. They appear both fragile and very sinister.

In other words, this is not a conservative exhibition. Much has been made of the homosexual content of Gilbert & George’s work, as well as the fact that women are noticeably absent in their montages. Suffice to say there is much to ponder in terms of gender politics and sexual identity in this retrospective -- and that some of the photomontages are extremely erotic and/or controversial. The casual viewer is also warned that there is at least one crucifix made of fecal matter.

All the highlights of Gilbert & George’s work from the last forty-years are here, be they outrageous, startling, surprisingly intimate. Though the exhibition is relatively small, it ensures even the most casual wanderer a series of revelations. The largest photomontages reach from ceiling to floor, and seem at once restrained and terrifically exciting in the narrow hallways. The almost overwhelming brightness of these larger pieces is tempered by subtle lighting; smaller pieces are given generous space.

The retrospective also contains several cases of material from Gilbert & George’s early work, though it is not nearly as comprehensive as that exhibited at the Tate Modern last winter. There are invitations to the duo’s early performances, cards containing samples of their hair and food, letters to friends on their signature letterhead. A video gallery also allows visitors to see Gilbert & George at their most charming, in the deadpan performance “Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk.” Whether or not viewers will buy the idea that Gilbert & George are art made flesh, the de Young exhibition is not to be missed.

Gilbert & George
runs through May 18th
at the de Young Museum