Art

The Quiet Radicalism and Dry Humor of Early Gilbert & George

The duo’s early work reveals how they opened the door to truly seeing queer bodies in art.

Installation view of The General Jungle, Sonnabend Gallery, New York, 1971 (© 2017 Gilbert & George)

The massive, unfolded paper sculptures of Gilbert & George’s earliest collaborations expose the anxious meditations of artists on the cusp of a major career. Expressively drawn in the late summer of 1971, The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpting romantically reconstitutes London’s many pristine parks as sites of Kantian contemplation or Woolfian angst. Born at the height of Minimalism’s reign over Britain, Gilbert & George’s romantic self-portrait series were initially received as rebelliously democratic. Their “Art for All” movement rebuked the prioritizing of Greenbergian “high art” snobbery. Today, the charcoal drawings are a testament to how Gilbert & George worked to soften the preening pretensions of Conceptualism in the British art scene.

Presented by Lévy Gorvy in the gallery’s London outpost on über posh Old Bond Street, Gilbert & George’s work is in rarified company. Such a location feels a bit strange for Gilbert & George, who arrived on the scene as queer outsiders uninterested in pure abstraction and esoterically Conceptual tactics. Thinking about the artists in their current context, however, helps us parse what’s so important about their early works. By spotlighting their relationship in every work, Gilbert & George insist that the viewer acknowledge their relationship. Putting a gay relationship on full view must have felt radical in 1971— homosexuality may have been decriminalized in the United Kingdom by 1967, but the deregulation only applied to private acts between two men ages 21 and up. What’s more, Gilbert & George weren’t depicting homosexuality as salacious but as ordinary — one aspect of the duo’s work is its pinpointed restraint and poignantly dry British humor.

Gilbert & George, “The Singing Sculpture.” Sonnabend Gallery, New York, 1991 (© 2017 Gilbert & George)

Upstairs at the gallery, a video of “Singing Sculpture” (1991) plays. Performed in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery in front of The General Jungle, the video involves a gilded, polychromatic Gilbert & George lackadaisically signing a version of “Underneath the Arches” from 1935. Theirs is a comedy of difference. The self-seriousness of their demeanor completely contradicts both the song and their metallurgic presentation. In the context of The General Jungle, however, this song delivers a sense of somnambulance, a daydream that Gilbert & George have fallen into.

Returning to The General Jungle’s drawings, it’s obvious that the artists savor their park strolls as moments of heavy, almost mawkish contemplation. A caption at the bottom of every image narrates the scene. “The Cold Morning Light Filters Dustily Through the Window” is one of the earliest paintings in the exhibition, and sets the tone. We see Gilbert & George set into the park’s wilderness and away from London’s palatial apartment buildings. “We Step into the Responsibility Suits of Our Art” adds a touch of self-aware melodrama. The title is both a poetic gesture to the role of the artist and a literal reference to Gilbert & George’s sartorial uniforms.

Gilbert & George, “The Cold Morning Light Filters Dustily Through the Window” (1971)

But beyond the more formal and iconographical qualities of The General Jungle, what fascinates me is the subtext of the series. Why did Gilbert & George choose places like Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens for these drawings? The gallerist I spoke with said that these parks were simply where the couple would regularly stroll. Subsequently, their dramatization of London’s parks as “jungles” underscores a general anxiety the pair has about their ethical responsibility as an artist. (Another work is titled, “Is Not Art the Only Hope for the Making Way for the Modern World to Enjoy the Sophistication of Decadent Living Expression.”)

While I can accept this reading, my skeptical side wants to dig deeper. Could these images also contain a slight reference to the queer practice of cruising? Here we have two men strolling in a park together amid the bushes and trees. (Parks are a common site for such dalliances.) There’s also a dirty, cartographic sense to their drawings. The charcoal provides a rugged, messy sense to their impressionistic style. Additionally, some captions are more insinuating than others, like “And the Night Presumes Upon the Evening” and “Nothing Breath-Taking Will Occur Here … But.” Coincidentally, these two works are the most abstract and messy paintings in the series, depicting the park’s vegetation in a blurry gust of wind rather than focusing on Gilbert & George’s presence. Where could they have gone?

Through this reading, I see Gilbert & George’s earlier works as a subtle and well executed queer reckoning for inclusion. Before the 70s, few queer subjects were depicted in art without condemnation or sensationalism. And while Minimalists and Conceptualists had their aesthetic and philosophical reasons for rejecting figuration, Gilbert & George’s use of self-portraiture opened the door to truly seeing queer bodies in art.

The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpting continues at Lévy Gorvy (22 Old Bond Street, Mayfair, London) through December 2.

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