Gilbert & George is an artist-duo consisting of Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, known for their provocative and eccentric 'living sculptures', drawings, photographic montages, and prints. Often taking their personal lives and immediate surroundings as points of departure, the duo navigates themes such as sexuality, racial tension, violence, and religion.
Gilbert & George have been working together since they met as students at Central Saint Martins in London in 1967. The duo are well-known for declaring their lives as art and staging performances in which they presented themselves as 'living sculptures'. For their iconic work The Singing Sculpture (1969–1991), the pair dressed in business suits, painted their faces in bronze powder, and sang and danced to the Depression-era song Underneath the Arches, with a choreography reminiscent of the movements of androids or puppets. In video works from this period, the duo—clad again in business suits—performs mundane activities such as drinking their favourite brand of gin (Gordon's Makes Us Drunk, 1972) in an attempt to confuse the hierarchy between art and the banal.
The suit would become a defining characteristic of Gilbert & George, not only in their artworks, where they almost always appear suited (if wearing clothes), but also in everyday life, dressing themselves in suits for interviews, exhibitions, and even for mundane activities such as taking a walk. In a 2017 interview with Ocula Magazine, the duo noted that coming from poor backgrounds—Proesch from a family of shoemakers in the Dolomites, Italy, and Passmore raised by a single mother in Devon, United Kingdom—they found suits to be a pragmatic tool with which to cultivate an air of propriety.
In the early 1970s Gilbert & George produced large charcoal drawings mounted on paper and erected to create immersive environments. One notable example is The Tuileries (1974), an installation that consists of large-scale, wall-mounted charcoal drawings depicting the suit-clad artist duo in the woods at the Tuileries in Paris, then widely known as a meeting place for gay men. Four simple pieces of furniture covered in the same imagery are presented with the drawings, simulating a living room setting. As a work that offers insight into the artists' life as a homosexual couple not long after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom (1967), the drawings' overall melancholic tone hints at a sense of alienation. The furniture also summons the artists' personal lives into the work, having been modelled after their own chairs (which also appear in Gordon's Make Us Drunk), while simultaneously functioning as a device to transport the audience into the woods.
It was also in the 1970s that Gilbert & George began arranging black-and-white photographs into grid-like compositions. 'The Dirty Words Pictures' (1977), for example, consist of 26 such photographic assemblages; one artwork, titled Cunt Scum, contains 16 images in rows of four, black metal frames dividing each panel. The words 'cunt' and 'scum' are spelled in graffiti letters on top and bottom rows, between which are pictures of the artists, London policemen, vagrants, and vacant streets. Taken east of London in Spitalfields, where the artists have been living since the late 1960s, the images follow the changing faces of the duo's neighbourhood, which is an area historically known as a home to immigrants. 'The Dirty Words Pictures' were made at a time when Spitalfields' Bangladesh and Pakistani communities were targeted by white nationalists; by placing themselves on either side of 'scum' in Cunt Scum, the artists seem to be condemning the racial attacks while acknowledging their inseparable association with British whiteness.
Throughout the decades that followed, Gilbert & George have continued to engage with social issues while incorporating bright colours into their photographic assemblages. The 15 panels in Light Headed (1991), for example, depict the red and yellow heads of the artists raised on hands in red, orange, and pink against a horizontal seascape backdrop. Conceived in the time of the AIDS epidemic, works such as Light Headed expressed the artists' grief over losing their friends in part through the use of vivid red—reflective of the public's fear of blood in response to the epidemic—and frontal gaze.
Since the early 2000s Gilbert & George have been working digitally, but conceptually their personal lives remain at the core of their practice. In 2017, they presented a new body of mixed media prints in an exhibition titled The Beard Pictures at Lehmann Maupin in New York. Depicting themselves as bearded creatures with hair made from various and unlikely sources—wire mesh, flowers, tree leaves, and beer foam among others—the artists explored the beard as a symbol of a larger social structure.
In addition to their 2007 major survey exhibition at Tate Modern, London, titled Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, the artistic duo has held exhibitions internationally, including Gilbert & George: THE MAJOR EXHIBITION, Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) (2018); The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy, White Cube, London (2018); and The Early Years, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2015). The artists were nominated twice for the prestigious Turner Prize (1984, 1986) winning the second time, and presented their works in the Venice Biennale three times (1978, 2003, and 2005).
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