Have Britain’s Bad Boys of Art Become an Institution?

LONDON — This past spring, Gilbert & George — those two-forever-in-one (or one-forever-in-two) living sculptors, who have always dressed and stepped out side by side like a pair of faux-Edwardian English gentlemen (despite the fact that one has always been irrevocably Italian) — made a bid to claim immortality for their 60-plus years of artistic endeavors by opening a namesake venue in East London. The Gilbert & George Centre is a three-gallery space in a former brewery within easy walking distance of their home and studio in Fournier Street, the old Huguenot quarter of Spitalfields, where displaced 18th-century French lacemakers once worked deep into the night by candlelight. 

G & G’s home is one of those houses.

They are both into their ninth decade, so they may be feeling the steeds of Time’s winged chariot at their backs.

How much has it cost them so far? I asked Daniel Seward, who showed me around the gallery just hours before the crowds gathered at the handsome wrought-iron gates for the first day of timed admissions — the gallery will be open Thursdays through Sundays, for the time being at least. The answer was eye-catching: £17 million (approximately $20.9M) of their own money.

Installation view of The Paradisical Pictures at the Gilbert & George Centre, London. Left: “Dent-de-Lion” (2019); right: “Boots” (2019) (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

One London journalist called it a philanthropic venture. Really? Not a piece of naked self-puffery? Well, it is philanthropic in so far as the Gilbert & George Centre will be free to enter (for the time being at least, I was assured), but they have built up a canny business, these two, ever since they decided that the way forward was to make large, digitally manipulated images of themselves. A digitally manipulated image is so much more salable than a pair of living sculptors who exist to be gawped at, or to be seen on a grainy television screen seated across from each other at a small table. 

None of their galleries chipped in, then? Apparently not. There are certainly quite of few of those, both blue-chip and otherwise. Eight in all, according to Seward. I mention the ones that spring to my mind: White Cube, Lehmann Maupin, Thaddaeus Ropac. These are the galleries that have sent me little films and interviews about the opening of the center, in the course of which Gilbert has robotically said things to George (or perhaps George said it to Gilbert) such as art is a way of living forever. Or: You don’t have to be a specialist, you don’t have to be rich to understand our art. Seward tells me about some other galleries too, in Brussels, Naples, and Greece, for example. G & G are big business.  

What is more, they have always been masters at the art of positioning themselves in the center of the field. They play the game of bad boys with impeccable manners to perfection. Their life has a seemly regularity to it — they dine at the same Turkish restaurant every night. Their table is reserved for them as usual, sir. The initials of the British monarch top the gates of their home. And yet their art is a no-holds-barred romp of rascality and cussedness that flirts with anarchy, and is full of wacky comic routines. It’s very slippery stuff, both serious and unserious. High art or low art? Such words don’t seem to get a grip on the situation.

The art in these new galleries is no exception. It is all from G & G’s private collection, Seward tells me, pieces they have held back. And that is how it will continue into the future, a rolling series of exhibitions devoted to the pick of their back catalogue, chosen by them, pieces they regard as the best of the best.

Installation view of The Paradisical Pictures at the Gilbert & George Centre, London. Pictured: “Full Fig” (2019) (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

The title of the current exhibition is The Paradisical Pictures, but this is no paradise ever yet glimpsed by you or me. As so often in their art, the colors in these huge panels are shrill and almost hallucinogenic. The menacing force at work here is Nature in all her many manifestations, from warping mushrooms to veiny giants of leaves with bad skin as seen down the barrel of a microscope to wormily, strangulating tendrils. G & G are sometimes at the center of it all, orchestrating proceedings, and other times wholly, helplessly marginalized, swallowed up, reduced to the boggling, kohl-enhanced eyes of the incarcerated spy. In a work called “On the Bench” (2019), the artists have collapsed on a bench at the foot of a tree. To dust they will return, the gong resounds. 

No, this is not a beneficent nature. This is not the soothing nature of the great 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell, where we are all free to enjoy a green thought in a green shade. This is nature, sickly, rampant, monstrous, irrepressible, indomitable. And nature even invades the images of G & G — sometimes their reconstituted images wing us back to the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, in which the human face is constructed entirely from fruit and vegetables. The three new galleries set these works off well — evenly lit, wooden floors, two handsome wood benches in the center of each. 

How much do their works cost? I ask Seward. “I have no idea,” he says, “I’d love to own one, though.” I step outside. The rain has eased off. A garden rings the cobbled courtyard of the gallery. Beside the wall, opposite the floral fantasia of the green, wrought-iron double gates by which I entered — which look like a cross between Art Nouveau and Tim Burton — a surprisingly peaceable Himalayan magnolia is just coming into bloom. 

Installation view of The Paradisical Pictures at the Gilbert & George Centre, London. Pictured: “Anthers” (2019) (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)
Gilbert and George 2
Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore in 2017 at their exhibition The Beard Pictures And Their Fuckosophy at the White Cube (photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

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